WASHINGTON — A new association of tanning salon owners is trying to salvage the reputation of sun beds despite a broad consensus among doctors and researchers that the devices can cause cancer.
The American Suntanning Association, which represents about 14,000 salon owners nationwide, formed in December to correct “misinformation about sunlight and sun beds” and “to promote the many benefits of moderate indoor tanning,” according to the group’s website. The association joined other industry groups to lobby against legislation introduced this year in 17 states — including Illinois, Washington, North Carolina and Texas — that would ban children younger than 18 from tanning salons. So far, only California and Vermont have passed such bans.
In Washington, three bills aimed at reducing minors’ exposure to tanning beds were introduced this session — none of which is still alive. At the sole public hearing on the legislation, Joseph Levy from the American Suntanning Association testified that supporters of the bill were distorting the threat and that those concerned should be focused instead on sunburn prevention.
“To say … UV exposure from a sun bed is harmful and should be avoided is like saying water causes drowning and therefore you should avoid water,” Levy said. “It is a misrepresentation of a relationship.”
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As the fledgling association gears up to defend the $5 billion indoor tanning industry, however, a state senator from California, Democrat Ted Lieu, has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the group for allegedly deceiving consumers about the skin cancer risks of sun beds.
“They are in complete denial that their tanning beds are killing people,” Lieu said.
In two letters to the FTC, Lieu argued that the American Suntanning Association should be bound by a 2010 FTC order that prohibited a similar group called the Indoor Tanning Association from making “false health and safety claims about indoor tanning,” such as denying the skin cancer risks of tanning or declaring that indoor tanning is safer than tanning outdoors.
In a settlement with the federal agency, the Indoor Tanning Association agreed to stop misrepresenting tests or studies and to halt deceptive advertisements.
Lieu said this week that he now had “concrete evidence” that the American Suntanning Association was a successor organization to the Indoor Tanning Association, and therefore in direct violation of the federal settlement.
He sent the FTC a copy of an article in an industry magazine in which American Suntanning Association board member Diane Lucas thanks the Indoor Tanning Association “for making such a smooth transition by getting us all the state lobbying history and contact information for the state lobbying battles.”
“It’s just very clear to me that it’s simply the same industry trade group with a different name,” Lieu said in an interview.
FTC spokeswoman Betsy Lordan said the agency couldn’t comment on whether any investigation was under way.
The Indoor Tanning Association, which still appears to be an active organization in Washington, D.C., didn’t respond to requests for comment. On its website, the group says it represents tanning manufacturers, distributors and members of support industries, as well as facility owners.
The new American Suntanning Association, which represents only salon owners, disputes Lieu’s allegations.
“It’s untrue,” said Tracie Cunningham, the executive director of the association, which is based in Michigan. “The senator’s understanding of the science is a perfect example of why both sides of the story need to be heard. He’s very one-sided in his beliefs, so to me that just means we need to have a balanced conversation about UV light.”
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies ultraviolet radiation from sun beds as carcinogenic to humans, alongside tobacco and asbestos. A 2007 study by the agency determined that people who start tanning regularly before age 30 have a 75 percent higher risk of developing melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. Other studies have reached similar conclusions.
The suntanning organization argues that the WHO study focused primarily on tanning devices in people’s homes and in doctors’ offices, not sun beds in professional salons.
The association plans to fund its own scientific research and studies. It’s hired the Washington lobbying firm mCapitol Management and New York public relations firm Global Strategy Group to make the case for indoor tanning to lawmakers and the public.
Total “sun abstinence” isn’t practical, said Cunningham, who said she tanned indoors twice a week herself and wasn’t worried about developing cancer.
“When you develop a tan, it’s like developing a natural sunscreen,” she said. “The issue, really, with the risk revolves around sunburn, and that’s something a professional salon doesn’t do.”
But dermatologists say there’s no such thing as a safe tan.
“A sunburn means you’re actually destroying cells, but certainly a tan means you’re getting enough sun to induce mutations,” said Sandra Lee, a dermatologist in Upland, Calif., and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology. “A tan already means damage.”
In questioning the prevailing scientific research, members of the American Suntanning Association are just trying to save their jobs and their industry, Lee said.
“The thing that concerns me the most about this is that it just gives ammunition to youngsters saying, ‘Oh it’s fine to do this,’ and they’re only going to suffer later,” Lee said. “They’re really doing a disservice, especially to impressionable youngsters.”
Almost 28 million Americans tan indoors every year, including 2.3 million teenagers, according to the dermatology academy.