Solarium turned on

Today we published research in the British Medical Journal that looked at sunbed use amongst teenagers in England. The research has been widely covered in the media – and our spokespeople have had a busy morning being interviewed for local and national television and radio.

Our findings are stark. Young people across England say they’re using sunbeds in large numbers – on average, 6 in every hundred 11-17 year olds have used sunbeds.

This rate of sunbed use would lead to more than an estimatedquarter of a million 11-17 year olds being put at increasedrisk of developing malignant melanoma

And in some areas of the country this figure’s even higher. In Liverpool, for example, we found that half of girls aged between 15 and 17 say they use sunbeds regularly.

This is deeply worrying. Skin cancer rates have been climbing rapidly for the last few decades, and there’s sound scientific evidence that UV radiation from sunbeds can cause the disease.

Earlier this year, IARC – the international body that analyses potential causes of cancer – placed sunbeds in its highest category, Group 1. This means that there is convincing evidence that sunbeds can cause cancer in humans.

Indeed, an IARC overview of studies on sunbeds and cancer showed that people who first use sunbeds before the age of 35 have an estimated 75 per cent higher risk of melanoma – the most serious type of skin cancer.

Why do people use sunbeds?

It’s revealing to look at why people say they use sunbeds. We’ve conducted focus groups on this subject, and people cited four key reasons for using sunbeds:

  • Access to sunbed salons is easy
  • Using a sunbed is cheap
  • It’s something to do together with friends and older siblings
  • There’s still a desire, and peer pressure to have a tan – i.e. to look more attractive

In these focus groups, people often said that they knew of the health risks, but rationalised their sunbed use by arguing that “their friends used sunbeds more than they did”.

We need legislation – quickly

Taking all this evidence together, Scotland is introducing legislation on sunbeds. But the UK government has been slow to introduce similar laws covering England and Wales (although the Welsh Assembly has recently published a report outlining the need for such legislation)

And in June this year, the government’s Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) also called for legislation – as we reported here.

Clearly, government needs to act. Voluntary regulation hasn’t worked. We want to see legislation which will:

  • Place a ban on under 18s using sunbeds
  • Ban unstaffed and coin-operated salons
  • Require all salons to have trained staff to supervise people using them
  • Require salons to provide clear, accurate health information to their users so that adults can be free to choose but will do so knowing the risks involved

This last point is important. Responsible adults have a right to chose whether they use a sunbed or not. But it’s important that they’re given all the information about the health risks.

But as well as informing adults, Cancer Research UK believes protecting children is a priority. We, and others, campaigned hard to protect children from the dangers of tobacco marketing with our Out of Sight, Out of Mind campaign. And this week, the government passed laws banning displays of tobacco at point of sale, and banning cigarette machines.

Now it’s time they took similar steps to protect our children from unregulated and irresponsibly marketed tanning salons.