A new Bronze Age for the tanning industry

Indoor tanning salons take on their critics


    U.S. News & World Report

    September 8, 1997

When it comes to challenging the conventional wisdom, few businesses can match the chutzpah of the $4 billion-a-year indoor tanning industry. Faced with across-the-board condemnation from health organizations and government agencies, trade groups representing the nation's 50,000 free-standing and related salons are fighting back with a media campaign. "New research shows that moderate tanning prevents cancer," one press release announces. Adds Joseph Levy, the executive director of the leading trade group, the International Smart Tan Network: "Moderate tanning has not been shown as a causative factor in any skin cancer."

Later this month, Levy and others will be highlighting the positive news about tanning at Smart Tan '97 in Orlando, one of the industry's biggest trade shows and conventions. Amid displays for high-powered new tanning beds and lotions such as "Black Gold," a few thousand salon owners will also learn that "tanning is part of a healthy lifestyle."

The industry faces a slight PR obstacle, however: No leading expert accepts such claims. "It's nonsense," says Stephen Katz, director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. The Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Cancer Society all warn consumers to stay away from tanning booths, saying that the ultraviolet rays from the sun (and tanning lamps) can cause skin cancer. Scientists generally accept the view espoused by the salon industry's archenemy, the American Academy of Dermatology: "There's no such thing as a safe tan."

Healthy glow. It's exactly that sort of downbeat message that prompted the Smart Tan Network to start running monthly ads this year in the trade publication Editor & Publisher. "We're trying to undo years of totally negative conditioning by the medical community," Levy says of his organization's $35,000 campaign to publicize research it contends shows that tanning is healthy.

But critics insist that the industry is trying to make its case by drawing on unproven theories and exaggerating current research. For instance, the group's ads and press releases highlight a 1993 study that "suggests that 30,000 cancer deaths could be avoided every year if more people tanned regularly." The study was actually a review paper by a chiropractor, Gordon Ainsleigh, positing that sunlight exposure can prevent such deadly cancers as colon and breast cancers, because people who live in sunnier climates have lower rates of those cancers. But epidemiologists say that other key factors--such as diet and exercise--also differ in warmer and colder climates, so sunlight can hardly be proclaimed yet as a cure for cancer.

In addition, the indoor tanning industry has touted the research of two scientists who have contended that vitamin D triggered by sunlight may help prevent some cancers and bone-thinning illnesses. But those researchers don't advocate tanning--or indoor tanning--as health measures. "I personally don't tan," says one of them, Boston University's Michael Holick.

The Smart Tan leaders also suggest that regular tanning may actually reduce the risk of the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma. Basically, they say, since sunburns and incidental sun exposure have been linked to melanoma, and those who tan regularly in salons say they get fewer sunburns, then, voilà, indoor tanning prevents melanoma! But there's mounting evidence that tanning salons may raise the risk of melanoma, according to studies in the New England Journal of Medicine and elsewhere (ultraviolet rays are known to damage DNA and interfere with the immune system). "They're doing their best to muddy the waters like the tobacco industry did," says Martin Weinstock, director of Brown University's dermatoepidemiology unit. "It's offensive."

The incessant attacks by health organizations may be having an impact. A decade ago, indoor tanning was among the fastest-growing industries in North America, but growth has slipped to less than 4 percent this year, compared with 54 percent between 1986 and 1988. Still, Levy is optimistic that the 21st century will be a "Bronze Age" for his industry.

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