Rob Hall is an Environmental Health Officer for Bury Council in Greater Manchester, with more than 10 years’ experience.
The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 – introduced after lengthy parliamentary debate and campaigning – makes it illegal for businesses to allow anyone under 18 to use sunbeds on their premises.
The laws were introduced because sunbeds dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer – including melanoma, the most serious form.
And the legislation is there to protect young people – who are most at risk – from forming a habit which can be dangerous in other ways too, as we’ll see below.
But the responsibility for making sure businesses toe the line lies with Environmental Health Officers like me, in each local authority. And earlier this year I secured the very first criminal conviction under the Act.
The story began in May 2012, when I received a complaint that a 15 year old girl had suffered burns all over her body after using a sunbed in a private gym.
She was hospitalised for 24 hours, placed on a drip and – due to the severity of her burns – was off school for 15 days.
We don’t yet know whether she’s experiencing any long-term physical or mental effects. But we do know she’s said it was the first and last time she would ever use a sunbed.
I led the investigation into how and why she came to suffer such severe burns. As with any new piece of legislation, there’s no precedent to use as a guide – so I had to be thorough and methodical in gathering evidence.
The girl told us that, after a gym session, she decided to use a sunbed. She paid for 10 minutes, with no questions asked. She didn’t look 18. She wasn’t asked for ID. The owners raised no medical questions, nor did they give her advice regarding her skin type and length of tanning time – particularly concerning given her pale skin, and the fact she’d never used a sunbed before.
The owners didn’t provide eye protection, and as a result the girl said her eyes were sore and bloodshot after using the sunbed. She said that she’d thought if there was anything important she needed to know then she would have been told.
The owner was aware that it’s illegal to allow sunbeds to be used by anyone under 18. His excuse at the time was that the girl ‘knew what she was doing’ (which ran contrary to a later statement saying that she received the burns and subsequent medical treatment because she ‘didn’t know how to use the equipment properly’).
When I first visited the gym to investigate the matter, the owner and staff repeatedly denied allowing entry to anyone under 16 to use the gym or sunbeds. But when I formally interviewed the owner (under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act), he admitted to the offences.
Even so, this didn’t stop him from pleading innocent at his first two court hearings. It wasn’t until the third, under the instruction of his solicitor, that he changed his plea to guilty. He was then successfully prosecuted, fined £500 and ordered to pay court costs of £1,500. He has now sold his gym for £6,000.
The girl’s mother has been understandably distraught by the whole situation. Seeing her daughter in a lot of pain and discomfort must have been heart-wrenching. She doesn’t want any child or parent to go through what they did.
The case has been widely reported in the national press (for example, in The Mirror, The Mail and The Sun), which I sincerely hope will have made other commercial sunbed owners think twice about letting under-18s use sunbeds, and of the consequences of doing so.
But it’s also important that people thinking of using sunbeds take notice of published advice to prevent similar incidents, and reduce their risk of skin damage and cancer. Cancer Research UK goes even further – saying that sunbeds ‘simply aren’t worth the risk’, and are linked to 100 melanoma deaths each year.
In the light of this case, the UK Health Protection Agency has reiterated its advice that the use of sunbeds should be discouraged (at least for cosmetic purposes), and that they should never be used by anyone under 18 years of age.
Although it’s obviously terrible to hear of such suffering, caused by such negligence, there’s a silver lining to this story. The Sunbeds Act allows us Environmental Health Officers to bring about change in an industry which has the potential to cause great suffering.
I see this as a positive step in a world obsessed by the way one looks!