Tanning beds: the new tobacco

Dermatologist calling for tanning bed ban in N.L., but salon owner says industry 'easy target'

Daniel MacEachern dmaceachern@thetelegram.com
Published on April 9, 2012
Photo by Thinkstock

Dermatologist Ian Landells and tanning salon owner Vic Lawlor can agree on at least one thing: tanning beds are the new cigarettes.

But for Landells, that means they shouldn't be used by anyone younger than 19. For Lawlor, that means they're an easy target for overregulating legislators.

Landells, the former president of the Canadian Dermatology Association, has for several years been working to have laws passed to prevent minors from using tanning beds.

"These products emit ultraviolet radiation," he said. "In my mind, they should be treated like tobacco, and restricted to those who are the age of majority, which is 19 and older in Newfoundland."

Landells said regulating tanning beds shouldn't be any different from regulating tobacco.

"In our minds, tanning beds are the cigarette of today," he said. "They are the equivalent of cigarettes 40 years ago. We now realize that they cause cancer and we need to restrict them."

Lawlor, the founder of tanning salon chain Arizona Heat - which has eight locations in Newfoundland and one in Nova Scotia - says the government shouldn't get involved in making parental decisions.

"Realistically, three to five per cent of our business is under 18," he said. "Ninety-five per cent of our business are working professionals that basically are going down south and want to get a base tan before they go, and that's it. We get a few grads. We're not really big on grads, but we will get a few 17-, 18-year-olds that are graduating this year that come in and buy a $20 package and want to get a bit of colour for grad pictures."

Lawlor said Arizona Heat's policy is that anyone younger than 18 who wants to use a tanning bed has to have parental consent. He says legislation that restricts the tanning industry is unfairly demonizing a service people use for self-esteem and health reasons.

"It's a recreational thing. People use it because they want to feel good and look good," he said. "You get a few people coming in with psoriasis, older people that use it because they can't get in to see a dermatologist and it only costs $5 for a tan rather than milking the government for a $200 fee."

But Landells called the idea of a "base tan" being necessary before going a tropical vacation a misconception, one of several that the tanning industry uses to promote its services.

"They think you go to get a base tan before you go south, that will help your skin protect yourself. That's false. It does not protect itself. They promote that it gives you high Vitamin D levels. That's false. They're actually very inefficient at giving you Vitamin D, and you get massive doses. It's like five times as much radiation as you get from noonday sun. They're very dangerous."

Lawlor says there are much bigger issues for governments to concentrate on than teen tanning.

"You've got obesity. You've got diabetes. You've got teen pregnancy. You've got drugs. You've got peer pressure. You've got bullying," he said. "If that's their biggest focus, to attack a teen tanning ban, I think it's a little bit overstepping their bounds. That's the concern I have."

It's a concern rising again, as the provincial government of British Columbia recently announced plans to ban the use of tanning beds for anyone younger than 18, following a similar ban in Nova Scotia. New Brunswick enacted a bylaw in the early '90s. Landells was part of a group from the Canadian Dermatology Association that last fall made the case for a ban to former health minister Jerome Kennedy.

While Landells felt their presentation was well-received, there hasn't been any movement on the part of the provincial government.

"We did a presentation along with Dr. Peter Green from Halifax, who helped get them banned in Nova Scotia, for kids under 19," he said. "We seemed to open their eyes, and they said, 'This seems like an obvious thing to do. We need to explore what our position is and we'll get back to you.' I've written back, but I've heard nothing since. So they seemed receptive at the time, but I don't think it's a big priority for them."

Victoria banned teens from using tanning beds last year in a municipal bylaw, but when Landells spoke to St. John's councillors, they told him the city doesn't have the authority to pass such a bylaw here.

"I've tried every level," he says. "It's silly, because this is a known carcinogen. The World Health Organization rated these as a Type-1 carcinogen, alongside tobacco and asbestos and arsenic. Artifical tanning is in the same category of causing cancer as those agents. according to the World Health Organization. Many countries around the world have banned them for kids. Brazil in fact banned them outright."

But Lawlor said the tanning industry is being unfairly demonized.

"Here's what I compare it to," he said. "They've got the cigarette smokers smoking pretty much around the back of the dumpster, now, so they've gotta target someone. And we're a really easy target."

Not all business owners with tanning beds would disagree with a ban. Novalee Colbert, who owns A Cut Above, a hairstyling salon that also has a tanning bed, says she doesn't allow teenagers to use the bed.

"I don't let anyone under 18 tan in my salon," she said. "I'm trying to get rid of my tanning bed, actually, because I just don't like it. ... I just think it causes cancer, and I don't think it's good for you. That's just me."

Colbert said she doesn't actually get many teenagers even asking for the service in the first place. "You might have a scattered one when grad comes around."

The provincial Health Department turned down The Telegram's request for an interview, providing instead a written statement: "As part of its mandate of promoting optimal health and well-being, the Department of Health and Community Services monitors developments in the research and policy arena to ensure our services, policies and legislation are modern, evidence based and meet the needs of the population. The department is considering the evidence and monitoring the evolution of tanning bed policies in other jurisdictions to assess potential policy responses."

Without support from local or provincial levels of government, Landells has tried appealing to teens directly, but finds warnings of long-term health consequences don't have much effect.

"They're typical teenagers. They have absolutely no sense of consequences of their actions, so they just say, 'Oh, I don't care about cancer,'" he said. "They care about vanity, so I actually don't talk about cancer to them. I talk about how it ages their skin and makes you look old really fast."

dmaceachern@thetelegram.com Twitter: TelegramDaniel