When Kayla Collier was in high school competing for the title of Miss Florida Teen USA title, having a tan was de rigueur. Like other teens, on and off the circuit, visiting a tanning salon was the fastest means to the ends.
And melanoma was the last thing on her mind.
“I don’t even know if I’d ever heard of it,” said Collier, who is now pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology at Nova Southeastern University. “I knew to put sunscreen on so I wouldn’t have wrinkles, but it wasn’t something that ran in my family and I hadn’t known anyone who had it, so it wasn’t something I had exposure to.”
But when she was just 16, a year after her mother noticed a scab on her back, doctors found Collier had a malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
Collier had only used a tanning bed about a half dozen times and can’t say whether the beds or sun caused her cancer. But she didn’t want other teens to unwittingly take the risks. So after winning the teen title in 2009, she made educating other teens about the dangers of skin cancer her mission. She teamed up with state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, to create legislation banning teens from the beds.
That was in 2011. The legislation failed. And failed again in 2012. Despite growing concerns about the risks associated with tanning beds, tanning beds remain as popular as ever.
Consider these numbers: Women in their 20s visit tanning salons almost twice a month on average, with 32 percent of young white women between 18 and 21 using indoor tanning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month. On an average day in America, 1 million people use indoor tanning, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And more than 70 percent of the patrons at salons are white women between 16 and 29.
The industry recently became the subject of scrutiny, or more accurately ridicule, after a New Jersey mother was arrested for putting her then 5-year-old daughter in a tanning booth. A school nurse noticed the child’s burns, questioned her, then tipped off police. But what grabbed headlines and a spot on Saturday Night Live, and earned the woman the moniker Tanorexic Mom, was her absurd chestnut tan and sometimes bizarre comments. She was subsequently banned from area tanning salons, according to news reports, and is awaiting trial.
Florida is one of the leading states in the nation for tanning beds, according to the Indoor Tanning Association, with an estimated 800 facilities and possibly many more installed at gyms, spas and other facilities that do not belong to the association. In 2010, industry revenue was estimated at $2.6 billion.
And yet health organizations have repeatedly warned about the dangers. The World Health Organization went so far as to classify tanning devices as carcinogenic in 2009 after finding that the risk of melanoma rose 75 percent in people who used indoor tanning before age 30.
“The damage that is done by an indoor tanning machine is much more severe and intense than the damage by the natural sun,” said Sobel, who vowed to continue trying to push through legislation. Currently, 33 states have laws restricting use for minors. Many, like Florida, require a parent’s signature. Only California bans teens from using the beds altogether.
Tanning facilities, however, believe they are being unfairly targeted and that risks are being exaggerated. Four local tanning salons were contacted for this story, but either did not respond or declined to be interviewed.
“People have never been more aware of sunscreen, but they still claim skin cancer rates are rising and they blame it on indoor tanning. They do this with nothing more than speculation,” said John Overstreet, the tanning association’s executive director. “There is a sound body of science that says skin regularly exposed to ultraviolet light is less likely to be places where malignant melanoma develops. The theory is that regular exposure has a protective effect. The point I’m trying to make is no one really knows about this and everybody likes to come up with simple solutions.”
Overstreet cites a 2008 study by the American Cancer Society that states the death rate for white men and women younger than 50 from melanoma has decreased by 2.3 to 3 percent in the last two decades. He also points to research conducted by Boston University’s Dr. Michael Hollick. Hollick, who has studied Vitamin D and written several books, argues that many more people suffer from Vitamin D deficiency than previously thought.
Vitamin D deficiency can cause, among other things, rickets in children and a softening of the bones, which can impair growth. And in fact, the first indoor tanning lamp was developed by a German medical company in 1903 to treat rickets.
In a lecture on Youtube, Hollick argued that we may be creating an epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency by overly demonizing the sun and its rays. While he applies sunblock to his face, Hollick said he leaves the rest of his body unprotected. Hollick did not respond to a request for an interview.
Overstreet also argues that while melanoma rates are rising in men over 50 and declining in women under 50, 95 percent of public health campaigns target women. Almost none target older men, who are most at risk.
That’s because older men don’t use tanning beds as much, the American Cancer Society argues.
“There is a concerted effort to educate young women and girls on the dangers associated with tanning beds because they are targeted by the industry, which puts its own profits ahead of health,” Paul Hull, the cancer society’s vice president of advocacy and public policy in Florida, wrote in an email. “The science now clearly shows an increased risk of melanoma with early use of artificial tanning, so of course we want the risks to be known by the population most apt to use that.”
In fact, people who use indoor tanning beds at a younger age have a 75 percent increased chance for melanoma and a 69 percent higher chance of early onset basal cell carcinoma than those who never use them, according to studies published in the International Journal of Cancer and the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
The Indoor Tanning Association supports having parental consent, but says efforts to ban the beds for teens goes too far.
“All the parent has to do is say no if they don’t want the kids to do it,” Overstreet said. “Sometimes you have to put the issue in perspective. Kids 16, 17 can drive. If you’re 17, you can get married. You can join the military at 17 with a parent’s permission and in a lot of states, young women can get abortion services and contraceptives when they’re 16 or 17 and you’re saying they can’t get a suntan without a parent’s permission? How out of whack is this?”
In fact, state Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said she was at first hesitant when she co-sponsored Sobel’s bill in 2012.
“I am against parental notification for abortion and here I am supporting parental notification for tanning,” she said. “So it took me a while to even settle with myself that I’m OK with it.”
But she did so, she said, because she felt strongly that kids were in danger.
“All they’re saying is under 14,” she said. “It’s reasonable to reduce such a terrible result.”
When Collier was attending Stetson University, from which she just graduated this month, she said her friends’ frequent use of tanning beds surprised even her.
“I had one friend go from one tanning bed and then to another facility in one day,” she said. “It’s illegal to tan more than once in a day, so she would go to another place.”
But, she explained, “knowing me and my harping on them,” they eventually stopped.
“I have several friends who have quit altogether and some who only do it for special occasions. But with some more promotion, we can make people aware and maybe we can cut the numbers down.”
Collier, who had her cancerous skin removed and initially underwent exams twice a year, now goes for annual checkups. She has since remained cancer free.