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More than 250,000 children sizzle on sunbeds risking skin cancer in later life

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 November 2009

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More than one quarter of a million children aged 11-17 are risking their health by seeking a tan from sunbeds – warn Cancer Research UK researchers in a letter published today in the British Medical Journal.

In England, on average, six per cent of 11-17 year olds use sunbeds. But in Liverpool and Sunderland a shocking 50 per cent of 15-17 year-old girls aim to tan on sunbeds, and more than two in five use them at least once a week.

Experts agree that using sunbeds increases the risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most dangerous and potentially fatal form of skin cancer.

Cancer Research UK data showed that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds used sunbeds more than their better-off counterparts. Researchers found that nationally of those who used a sunbed almost 27 per cent did so at least once a month in England, and almost one quarter (23.2 per cent) did so at home.

And when it came to visiting a tanning salon only just over 11 per cent of children who used sunbeds were actually shown how they worked and warned of any potential harm.

Justine Sheils, a 37-year-old administrator from Liverpool, began using sunbeds when she was 15 so she could get a base tan before summer holidays and then top the tan up when she came home. Five years ago she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and has since had two major operations to remove cancerous tumours from her chest and the top of her head.

“The tanning salon was near my school and I used to go in for sunbed sessions on my way home,” said Justine. “There was always an occasion like a party or an outing when I had the excuse to top up my tan. Now I see girls of 14 or 15 in their school uniforms going into that same salon I used to use and they come out looking like lobsters so the results of this survey are shocking but not surprising.”

Cancer Research UK commissioned two surveys*, funded by the National Cancer Action Team and supported by the department of health, to assess just how many children use sunbeds, and where. The first survey questioned 3,100 children from all over England about their tanning habits.

The second survey questioned 6,200 children across six different cities.** Researchers found that the English average of six per cent almost doubled to 11 per cent in 11-17 year olds questioned in the north of the country.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of health information, said: “Allowing children to be regularly exposed to harmful radiation from sunbeds is irresponsible. The COMARE*** report recommended that the Government take strong action to protect young people from the dangers of using sunbeds. This included stopping under 18s from using sunbeds, closing down unmanned, coin-operated salons and ensuring that local enforcement officers have powers to inspect salons and check that minimum standards are being met.

“Numerous other countries, including Scotland, have introduced legislation to protect children from sunbeds; we are calling on the Government to introduce legislation as a matter of urgency.”

Children who used sunbeds were also invited to focus groups to see what they knew about health risks associated with sunbeds and to find out more about how and why they chose to use them.

Sunbed users said there was peer pressure to get a tan and that sunbeds were an easy, quick and cheap way to do that. They knew of health risks but rationalised their use by arguing that many friends used sunbeds more often than they did.

Catherine Thomson, lead author of the report and Cancer Research UK’s head of statistics, said: “The International Agency for Research into Cancer (IARC) reclassified UV radiation exposure as “carcinogenic to humans” – and this includes radiation from sunbeds and tanning beds.

“We know that rates of malignant melanoma are rising faster than any other cancer in the UK and causing more than 2000 deaths a year.”

More than 10,400 cases of malignant melanoma were recorded in the UK in 2006, with ten per cent of cases being diagnosed in the under 35s and 30 per cent in the under 50s. Incidence rates of this form of skin cancer have quadrupled since the 1970.


For press enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300, or the duty press officer out of office hours on 07050 264059.