Sunbeds get a roasting from SA scientists
Sunbeds are a leading cause of skin cancer and should be banned, say South African researchers.
They have been joined in their campaign by Julie George, 49, who was given a year to live after being diagnosed with skin cancer in 2013.
The Port Elizabeth woman used sunbeds several times as a teenager and in her 30s, not knowing that in 2009 they would be listed as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
They are now banned in 44 countries, according to the World Health Organisation, and a team from the Medical Research Council says SA should follow suit.
Writing in the December issue of the SA Medical Journal, they say: "A ban on sunbeds is probably the best way forward for SA, although it will not be a simple process.
"We could also consider additional taxes for tanning sessions, such as those placed on tobacco and recently sugar, to drive down demand."
One of the study’s authors, public health scientist Caradee Wright from the MRC environment and health research unit, said sunbeds were unregulated and operators tended to ignore the Consumer Protection Act when it came to false advertising and overstating perceived benefits, such as “sunbeds condition skin before going outdoors in summer”.
Wright said sunbed use was widespread, especially among white women from Gauteng who went for sessions before summer holidays at the coast, and among teenagers wanting to look tanned at matric dances.
“We have a sense that this is one of the key risk factors among Caucasian people for melanoma, particularly among women,” she said. “It’s like sun exposure but it’s even more intense. That needs to be known is South Africa.”
She said a ban on sunbeds would be easier than regulation, but other countries had been forced to compensate owners. “The best course of action would be an education campaign,” she said.
George, who gave Wright permission to use her as a case study in the medical journal letter, said if she had children she would never allow them to repeat her mistake.
“I think in the back of my mind I knew too much sun was bad but I didn’t really know why or the real dangers of it, and you also think, 'it won’t happen to me,'” she said. "But this is something that people can avoid.”
At the age of 44 in 2013, George noticed a freckle on her left calf had become raised. It was diagnosed as an invasive amelanotic melanoma. The growth and two lymph nodes were removed, but in May 2017 the cancer returned and spread to George's lung.
A crowdfunding campaign raised R1m for George to have four rounds of treatment in February with a targeted cancer drug which helps the immune system to fight cancer cells. On October 2, scans showed she was clear of cancer.
The medical journal letter cites studies which show the risk of skin cancer increases by up to 40% for people who used sunbeds before the age of 35. “In South Africa skin cancer is among the top 10 cancers and causes about 300 deaths per year,” said the letter.
The cost of diagnosing and treating skin cancer in the public and private health settings was more than R90m a year, it said.
A senior employee at Bronze Body Express, a Cape Town beauty salon that offers sunbed tanning, said she had read about the negative effects of sunbed use but supported people's rights to make personal choices.
Tanning sessions cost R13 a minute and generally lasted six minutes, depending on whether customers use a “super strong” bed or a “medium strength” bed.
“Basically we control how long someone is going to be in there for, so we don’t suggest anyone to come every single day, so there are regulations that we follow,” said the employee, who did not want to be named.
It was against company policy to allow any client to burn (George reported blistering after a sunbed session two years before her melanoma was diagnosed) but there was no lower age limit on who could use sunbeds.
“We get a lot of people that will come in just before an event or something like that. A lot of people come in because they are at work all day, they want to be tanned but they don’t have the time to go to the beach, so this is just kind of a quick easy way to get a tan,” she said.