Blair Horner: A Look Back on the Fight Against Cancer

Dec 31, 2012

Blair Horner

The dawn of a new year is the time to reflect and to plan a new course.  When it comes to fighting cancer, in 2012 New York took one significant step forward by restricting the use of indoor tanning booths.  As 2013 dawns, more steps are needed.

First some background:  In July, Governor Cuomo signed into law a new restriction on the use of tanning beds by children.  The law, which went into effect in August, bans the use of indoor tanning beds for those aged 16 years old and younger. 

It was appropriate for the state to make this move.  At the federal level, there are few restrictions on indoor tanning.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has, to date, ignored the mounting evidence and advice of an advisory panel that recommended action against tanning beds.

As a result, indoor tanning beds are not safe and not appropriately regulated.  Sunlamps used for tanning are currently regulated by FDA as Class I medical devices.  This classification is reserved for the lowest risk products such as tongue depressors and bandages, and is inappropriate for a product that has been elevated by the World Health Organization to its highest cancer risk category – “carcinogenic to humans.”

Using a tanning bed increases the risk of two types of skin cancer, squamous and basal cell carcinomas, by 67 percent and 29 percent respectively.  For melanoma, the risk is even higher, with a 75 percent increased risk when first use of a tanning bed is prior to age 35.

In New York, an estimated 4,700 people will be diagnosed with melanoma and 440 will die from the disease this year.  Tens of thousands more residents will be diagnosed with basal or squamous cell carcinomas of the skin.  UV radiation exposure, particularly from indoor tanning, is a leading risk factor for the development of these cancers. 

While New York’s law was unnecessarily weakened by a demand by the Senate Majority to allow 17 years olds continued access to indoor tanning beds, passage of the law gave the Cuomo Administration a golden opportunity to overhaul its outdated indoor tanning regulations.

But that hasn’t yet happened.  New York’s existing regulations have changed little despite the new law.

And new regulations are needed.  As mentioned earlier, there have been significant new scientific findings documenting the dangers of indoor tanning.  Also, watchdogs found many instances of violations of New York’s parental consent requirement (for those under 18) and relatively weak warning language on disclosure forms and signage.  The weaknesses in disclosure were missed opportunities to educate the public about the dangers inherent in indoor tanning.  

Current New York law authorizes the Health Department to develop disclosure and informational materials to enforce the law. 

Consent forms, disclosure forms and any other informational pamphlets required by the Department of Health to be read or signed before using tanning devices should be updated to more accurately reflect the risks involved in using artificial tanning devices.  Disclosure forms, for example, should mention the cancer risks from indoor tanning – they do not now.

Also, current law is inadequate in educating parents not only of the dangers of indoor tanning, but to be aware of the frequency of their child’s indoor tanning exposures. 

New York took a first step in helping to reduce cancer rates in the state.  It’s now up to the Cuomo Administration to take the next step by approving regulations that make the cancer risks clear to indoor tanning customers and parents.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

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