Monday, August 10, 2009

The "Freedom" to Be Given Cancer

The link between tanning beds and cancer, in particular that deadly skin cancer, melanoma, has been known for years. It’s the reason that laws have been passed across the United States to deal with tanning salons—despite intense lobbying by the tanning industry.

Now, the basis for those laws has been thoroughly confirmed by a comprehensive report of the World Health Organization
putting tanning beds into the top cancer risk category—deeming them as deadly as arsenic and mustard gas.

Younger people were found to be the biggest victims: Said the report: “The risk of skin melanoma is increased 75 percent when use of tanning devices starts before 30 years of age.”

The International Tanning Association and other segments of the tanning industry are, meanwhile, trying to refute the study.

Where I live, in Suffolk County, Long Island, early on there was a move to regulate tanning salons. Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher in early 2005 introduced a bill requiring young people between 14 and 18 only be allowed to get toasted in a tanning salon if accompanied by a parent.

She was inspired by her experience as a high school teacher when, she recalls, “I saw students coming to school in the winter months with tans,” especially girls and not from vacations but from going to tanning salons. “I would lecture the students about what they were doing to their skin…the health dangers involved.”

Ms. Viloria-Fisher's bill faced “tremendous resistance” from the tanning industry and became stuck in committee.

It’s amazing how vested interests—entities seeking to perpetuate themselves and their dubious doings—have the power all over the United States to stop sensible governmental action. (Consider currently the insurance industry and health care.)

The Indoor Tanning Association proclaims on its website ( “Promoting Responsible Sun Care.” It stresses that it “represents thousands of indoor tanning manufacturers, distributors, facility owners and members from other support industries. The professional indoor tanning industry employs more than 160,000 people and generates an economic impact of more than $5 billion annually.” It was “founded to protect the freedom of individuals to acquire a suntan.” Its claims include how the “sunshine vitamin may make you brighter…may help older people stay mentally fit.”

A major break on the tanning salon issue in Suffolk came, recounts Ms. Viloria-Fisher, when she attended a meeting the Suffolk County executive was holding with environmentalists and health advocates and met Colette Coyne “and got to talk to her.” Ms. Coyne and her husband, Patrick, of New Hyde Park, Long Island, founded the Colette Coyne Melanoma Awareness Campaign ( after their daughter, also named Colette, died at 29 of melanoma.

Ms. Viloria-Fisher re-introduced her bill, this time calling it the “Colette Melanoma Awareness Act” later in 2005. And, despite continued industry opposition, this time the measure passed the legislature, unanimously, and was signed into law by the county executive.

With the WHO report, Ms. Viloria-Fisher has just introduced a new bill to flatly ban those under 18 from using tanning salons.

Reflecting on her experience with the issue, Ms. Viloria-Fisher speaks of how “very nasty” the situation became when she first introduced her bill. But she says she knew she was correct from the research then done—by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control—cited in her bill. She also received personal advice from “a very good friend, a plastic surgeon, who told me, ‘It’s about time. I get young people coming to me who have actually scarred themselves on tanning beds.’”

As to those who fought her initiative, “There’s no interest like self-interest. Bt my job is as a policy maker to look at this dispassionately because I don’t have a vested interest, to look at this in terms of the public health and public good, to look at the bigger interest.” The WHO report “confirms what we’ve been reading.”

She hopes pending New York State legislation barring those under 18 from using tanning salons might now pass. The Indoor Tanning Association, on its website, lists the New York measure and other bills in the U.S. on tanning salons and urges their defeat. After all, it says, “All human activity presents risk.”

How vested interests can twist the truth and damage and destroy life.

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