Tanning beds would be off-limits for Michigan teens under proposed law
Michigan already has a law requiring parental consent for minors to use tanning beds, but a new law would prohibit teens' use of the beds altogether.
West Bloomfield dermatologist Dr. Kay Watnick says indoor tanning can increase the risk for skin cancer -- including melanoma.
"It's a very serious kid of skin cancer," Watnick says. "It's most prominent in young Caucasian females."
Watnick says melanoma and other types of skin cancer have increased dramatically over the past three decades.
She says 70 percent of tanning bed users are white women between ages 16 and 29. That's also the demographic in which melanoma is the second-most common type of cancer.
"But the good thing about melanoma is that if you find it early, it's curable. It's just that people often wait too long," Watnick says.
Once melanoma has spread into the lymph nodes, it becomes much more difficult to treat and can be fatal.
Watnick says population and genetic studies of tanning bed users date back to the 1970s in Scandinavia, Australia and the United States.
"There is a 75 percent increased risk of developing a melanoma if you're a tanning bed user. In particular, the earlier you use a tanning bed, and the longer you use one, your risk increases," she says.
Watnick says it's estimated between 35 and 45 percent of 17-year-old Caucasian girls use tanning beds.
The first indication of skin cancer can be in the form of a mole.
"But it looks funny," she says. "It's darker or itchy, it has asymmetrical margins, the borders are irregular, and there's more than one color. They can be about the size of a pencil eraser."
Watnick says there are also melanomas that don't produce a pigment and are harder to diagnose.
"They look like a pink bump. People think they have a pimple or a bug bite, but it doesn't go away."
Watnick says delivering the diagnosis of melanoma is not a phone call she wants to make.
Treatment involves cutting away the affected skin.
"It can be a wide excision, Watnick says. "Sometimes lymph nodes have to be removed. The pathologist measures the depth of the melanoma into the skin. So the thinner the melanoma, the better the prognosis. But the deeper it is, the more likely it's already spread.
"Melanoma is a bad actor," Watnick says. "It's similar to other cancers that do not respond to chemotherapy or radiation. There are some drugs that can be helpful, but you may have to have a certain genetic marker on your melanoma for those to be helpful."
Watnick says some patients tell her tanning is addictive.
"They feel more attractive, and sometimes tanning beds can make people feel more calm and relaxed," she says. "We actually know that tanning can be addictive. You can see the changes in someone's brain.
"I always tell people to be happy with the color they were born with," Watnick says.
She says Michigan's age and parental consent restrictions that were legislated in 2008 are often ignored by tanning salon personnel.
"People who work there either don't ask, or they'll accept any signature, or they don't ask for an ID -- so people can just say they're 18," Watnick says.
And she says the indoor tanning industry is thriving.
"There are studies that show there are more tanning beds than Starbucks and McDonald's combined in this country."
In 2010, indoor tanning was a $5 billion business, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists.
A report in Fair Warning, a nonpartisan online publication devoted to public interest journalism, says the tanning industry has gone on the offensive trying to discredit its critics, mainly dermatologists and American Cancer Society, by calling them the "Sun Scare" industry.
The Indoor Tanning Association says parents, not government, should decide whether teens should be allowed to use tanning beds.
"...it is a very slippery slope when government starts taking away the right to make very basic parenting decisions such as this. Is the next step to ban teens from sun bathing at public beaches and pools?" the ITA asks on its Web page.
In response to a Mayo Clinic study linking indoor tanning to an increase in melanoma, the ITA writes:
"We are surprised that an institution usually as well-respected as the Mayo Clinic would publish a report like this; the study itself has nothing to do with indoor tanning, yet the authors make a leap of pure speculation to suggest that rising melanoma rates may have a connection to indoor tanning. The fact is there is no consensus among researchers regarding the relationship between melanoma skin cancer and UV exposure either from the sun or a sunbed..."
However, Dr. Watnick believes Michigan's proposed law to ban indoor tanning for teens will save lives.
"This isn't a hypothesis. This is real. It will also save health care dollars," she says.