News

Turn the heat up on solariums


2 March 2010

Professor of Public Health Simon Chapman asks why we tolerate solariums when we are now fully aware of their harm and the rule-breaking industry could be squashed with barely a whimper of protest about lost jobs.

"Eighty-seven of 89 Sydney solariums have ignored the rules. Here we have a vanity-servicing industry that, with no irony, charges the IQ-challenged to lie inside an uninviting coffin-like box and baste under intense ultra-violet radiation. A 2007 review concluded that sun-bed tanning is associated with a 22 per cent increased risk of developing melanoma, with up to 98 per cent increased risk among those who had their first sessions at younger than 35.While Cancer Institute campaigns gamely try to drill home the ghastly realities of melanoma, coin-operated, self-serve booths are out there now, ready to dose you, no questions asked. Come as often and stay as long as you want."

- Published inThe National Times

After the very public death of 26-year-old solarium customer Clare Oliver from melanoma in September 2007, health authorities introduced mandatory rules for solariums.

Health authorities, journalists and the public had been jolted out of complacency. Solariums were not like spray tan studios, catering to fashion victims. They were cancer incubators. The days of voluntary codes were allegedly over. No under-18s, no pale-skinned customers. Limited exposure time. The industry quaked in fear.

Now, thanks to a recent NSW Health Department audit, we know that this has been treated as a joke across the sun-bed industry. Eighty-seven of 89 Sydney solariums have ignored the rules. Here we have a vanity-servicing industry that, with no irony, charges the IQ-challenged to lie inside an uninviting coffin-like box and baste under intense ultra-violet radiation. A 2007 review concluded that sun-bed tanning is associated with a 22 per cent increased risk of developing melanoma, with up to 98 per cent increased risk among those who had their first sessions at younger than 35.

While Cancer Institute campaigns gamely try to drill home the ghastly realities of melanoma, coin-operated, self-serve booths are out there now, ready to dose you, no questions asked. Come as often and stay as long as you want.

Tobacconists are not supposed to sell cigarettes to teenagers either, and everyone knows it's hardly impossible for teenagers to buy alcohol. But undeterred, health authorities apparently believed that the solarium industry would turn its back on legions of paying customers.

Selling cigarettes to under-age children attracts large fines, but it's an open secret that the risks of being caught are negligible. Solarium operators do the same maths.

Clare Oliver's dying wish is being violated daily by this travesty. While her public death made good television, there has been virtual silence on this report about the disgraceful aftermath. In 2006, 1238 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma — 3870 were under 60, and 2044 were under 40. In all, 1238 died, 335 aged under 60. Sun exposure was responsible for most of this, but the sun is rather more difficult to regulate. Solariums expose people to turbocharged UV doses that have no place in any community that takes cancer prevention seriously.

Another industry that exposes people to radiation for an entirely different purpose is the diagnostic radiology industry. Every day in the US, more than 19,500 CT scans are performed, subjecting each patient to the equivalent of 30 to 442 chest radiographs per scan. Computed tomography scans have a vital role in diagnosis, but whole body scans are increasingly promoted to the worried well on the basis of prevention. A recent Annals of Internal Medicine report predicted 29,000 future cancers in the US attributable to CT scanning in people today — about double the number forecast from Chernobyl until the year 2065.

To be a radiologist, you need a medical degree and extensive postgraduate qualifications. X-ray equipment is heavily regulated. Customers can't request scans for vanity reasons. While over-enthusiastic use of diagnostic radiation plainly has a serious downside, the idea that we would treat radiation services as if they were like a visit to the hairdresser, with unqualified staff and requiring no regulation or inspection, is unimaginable.

So why do we tolerate solariums? This is a gnat-sized industry that could be squashed with barely a whimper of protest about lost jobs. Have people switch to spray tans to satisfy their tanning fetish.

Like today's employees of the tobacco industry, these are people who entered the cancer promotion trade with their eyes wide open. They went into it cognisant of the risks and should expect no sympathy if they are shut down. They just don't care, and neither should we.

If it became fashionable to wear a lump of uranium yellowcake or flaky blue asbestos around your neck as a sign of some neo-gothic death wish, would this be allowed? If the radiology (x-ray) industry tried to expose young people to vanity-based radiation exposure, the community would be understandably outraged. This is an industry whose time must surely be up.

Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney.


Contact: Sarah Stock

Phone: 0419 278 715

Email: 1639192a117e140e071b00771d411608022a7430121e6f2219