From 2014 in New South Wales and 2015 in South Australia, solariums will be outlawed and the businesses that promote and sell sunbed use have been put on notice to phase them out and find a new way to make a living. And thus, we could be seeing the beginning of the end nationally, of the commercial use of sun beds to deliver those gleaming fake tans that so many are so fond off come October every year.
It’s been a long road. But the evidence has been slowly mounting to close the case.
Recently the British Medical Journal published the results of a study on the effects of sun bed use in northern Europe, where artificial ultraviolet radiation has been widely used as a substitute for real sun since the early 1980s.
The study finds that “sunbed use is associated with a significant increase in risk of melanoma. This risk increases with the number of sunbed sessions and with initial usage at a young age (under 35 years)”. People who used tanning beds were also found to be more likely to develop one of two types of non-melanoma skin cancer, basal and squamous cell carcinoma.
The study went on to issue a stern rebuke to governments dragging their feet on reform.
“The cancerous damage associated with sunbed use is substantial and could be avoided by strict regulation.”
In Australia, strict regulation is missing-in-action outside of New South Wales and South Australia.
In Victoria, where the lobbying has been particularly emotional, the umming and ahhing has been going on since the death of Claire Oliver (right), who pleaded for sunbeds to be outlawed before she died of melanoma in 2007.
Who could forget Claire’s story, broadcast on Sixty Minutes?
Victoria has been mulling over a range of options, from banning sunbeds altogether, to doing very little – increasing the age at which it would be legal to use a solarium and using graphic pictures of malignant skin cancers at the point of purchase.
But Jay Allen, a melanoma survivor who has lobbied to have sun beds banned, says he’s been told that solarium owners in New South Wales are pretty willing to bend the age rules as more and more people become wary of using sunbeds. In fact, he says a NSW Government audit showed that a majority of solariums weren’t obeying the age restrictions. Thus, the change of law.
Of course, the Cancer Council is delighted with the legislators of South Australia and New South Wales.
“The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classed UV-emitting tanning beds as a Grade 1 carcinogen, the highest risk category,” said Brenda Wilson, the CEO of the Cancer Council.
“Solaria emit levels of UV radiation up to three times as strong as the midday summer sun, with about 15 per cent exceeding this level and emitting UVA radiation up to six times as strong.
“There is no safe level of solaria use,” she said.
All of this comes as another new study shows 58% of Australians are short on Vitamin D, the gift of natural sunshine that helps keep bones from becoming brittle, and may help keep diabetes, some cancers and multiple sclerosis at bay.
But as our Vitamin D levels drop as fast as skin cancer levels seem to be rising, the dilemma is a curly one for health professionals.
The scientific data on the efficacy of Vitamin D supplements is confused, abstract and conflicted at best.
So, if supplements aren’t as effective as the real thing, is there a safe way to get Vitamin D the natural way?
The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne says there is.
It recently presented a public lecture on melanoma, “Australia’s disease”, and it wasn’t a rosy story.
Professor Grant McArthur, the Centre’s Director of the Skin and Melanoma Service and head of Molecular Oncology, said we have the highest incidence of the disease in the world.
Over 1,100 Australians die each year from melanoma. It’s not only also more common in men (1 in 14 men will get a melanoma in their lifetime), it’s the most common cancer in the 20 – 40 age group.
What distinguishes melanoma from many other cancers and makes it very dangerous is the capacity of its cells to move when the cancer is quite small.
The good news is that over 90% of melanoma’s caught early enough, can be cured. And because a melanoma can actually be seen on the skin – as opposed to say breast cancer for example – early detection is a bit easier.
But still, melanoma rates are rising.
There’s early detection is we’re smart enough to go to a dermatologist to get our freckles and moles regularly checked.
And there’s the “slip, slop, slap” message and UV alerts which are effective, even if they are contributing to a Vitamin D deficiency.
“How do you get enough Vitamin D to give you enough strength for your bones, particularly as you get older, particularly against bone disease whilst reducing the chances of skin cancer?” asked Professor McArthur.
The research show “there are times early and late in the day when you can go outside without sunscreen, without your hat and you can get enough vitamin D produced from UV exposure” he said.
And those times are between 6 and 9 in the morning and between 5 and 8pm. They’re not exactly convenient times, as Professor McArthur recognises.
“There is another option,” said Professor McArthur, “ because I don’t really have a lot of time at those ends of the day.
“So I just take one vitamin D tablet a day,” he said.
No doubt, there’ll be more studies on whether supplements deliver as much or the same Vitamin D as the sun. And there’s always the possibility that profit hungry pharmaceuticals will eye off a chance to expand this $100 million a year industry by coming up with a more efficient supplement.
In the meantime, get up early! Or leave work at 5 and go for a walk!
* Disclosure: Monica Attard recently hosted the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre public lecture on melanoma.
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.