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It s time to tone down tanning

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It's time to tone down tanning

It's about this time of year when the lucky among us heading for the sun and sand of Caribbean resorts start to muse about investing in a "base tan." Or for those of us Ottawabound, a series of indoor tanning sessions seems just the thing to boost the spirits and bronze over that mid-January pallor.

But before signing a longterm contract with your local R-U-Tanned, there's something Dr. Isra Levy would like you to know: Tanning beds significantly increase the chances of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Dramatic? Maybe, but the frustration expressed by Ottawa's medical officer of health is understandable. Melanoma is one of the more preventable cancers and yet reports to be tabled to the city's board of health on Monday show that the rate of melanoma was "significantly higher in Ottawa compared to the rest of Ontario." In 2007, there were 146 cases of melanoma diagnosed in Ottawa. Even more alarming, melanoma is the secondmost prevalent cancer in Ottawa among young people, accounting for more than 10 per cent of all cancers for those aged 15 to 29.

Now, melanoma doesn't even make the top 10 of most common cancers in Ottawa, although that would be little comfort to 146 cancer patients dealing with their dire diagnoses. Heading that list is breast cancer with 553 incidents in 2007, followed closely by lung cancer with 502 diagnoses.

Lung cancer was also the third most prevalent cause of death in Ottawa in 2007 and responsible for more "potential years of lost life" - that is, the time lost by dying prematurely - than any other cause of death in this city.

Like melanoma, lung cancer is particularly frustrating because, for the most part, it can be avoided by not smoking or exposing oneself to second-hand smoke.

Ottawa took the lead in public health when it banned smoking in restaurants and bars 10 years ago. That was a controversial and court-challenged move, but a decade later, few of us would welcome a return to smoking wherever we go.

Currently, the city is considering an expansion of its no-smoking bylaw. City council will soon decide whether to expand the ban to outdoor public areas such as beaches and parks. So far, most of the response from the public has been positive.

But what, from a public policy point of view, has the city done about skin cancer?

Certainly, there have been education campaigns. By now, we all know we shouldn't bake ourselves to a crisp, that we should slather on sunscreen and wear goofy-looking, widebrimmed hats in the scorching sun.

There has been less success in spreading the message that tanning beds are not safer than outdoor tans. The use of tanning beds is a problem for young people in particular, who are big users of the service. (It's not unusual to see salons advertising tans for graduation.) Studies show that those who use indoor tanning beds before age 35 are 75 per cent more likely to develop melanoma.

For the past several years, the Canadian Cancer Society, as well as the Ontario Medical Association, have called for restrictions on tanning booths for those under 18. It's a proposal city council should seriously consider.

Currently, the indoor tanning industry isn't regulated. Health Canada offers voluntary guidelines, but it's up to individual operators to have rules about the age of their clients. One large chain, for example, says that customers under age 18 need the consent of a parent.

Sarnia came close to banning minors from tanning salons late last year, but chickened out at the last minute. Belleville also passed on the chance to restrict access to tanning beds.

But a year ago this month, Victoria's regional government restricted tanning bed use to those over 18, affecting 13 municipalities and two regional districts in British Columbia. There are re-strictions in Nova Scotia, California, Australia and several European countries, and in Brazil tanning beds are banned outright.

The studies are fairly unanimous, with U.S. and international health agencies calling tanning beds carcinogenic to humans.

Genetics do play a role in an individual's chances of contracting melanoma, but among the Mayo Clinic's advice for preventing melanoma is straightforward: "Do not use tanning booths."

Adults are allowed free choice, even if that choice isn't good for them. That includes getting an indoor tan. But we have all kinds of rules that protect children - they aren't allowed to drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes until they're 19, no matter what their parents say. Given the known risks, why should tanning beds be any different.

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