Health Minister Tony Ryall plans a survey of the indoor tanning industry to assess its level of compliance with a voluntary code of practice. The outcome will probably not surprise him, and the appropriate response should not occupy too much of his time. For too long, the industry has sat in the last chance saloon. Now, compelling new information released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer leaves the Government with little option but to resort to regulation.
The agency, a part of the World Health Organisation, has reclassified the ultraviolet radiation produced by sunbeds as carcinogenic to humans, the highest risk category for causing cancer. This places it alongside tobacco and asbestos. Previously, the radiation had been considered a probable carcinogen. The agency's analysis of 20 studies also led it to conclude the risk of skin cancer increased by 75 per cent when people started using sunbeds before they were 30.
This information has confirmed fears long held in this country, which has one of the world's highest incidence rates of malignant melanoma, the most serious skin cancer.
Every year, about 250 New Zealanders die from skin cancer and about 2000 new cases are reported. A long-running public health campaign warning of the danger of ultraviolet rays, especially outdoors at the height of summer, has been relatively successful. But 8 per cent of New Zealanders continue to use sunbeds, a far more dangerous proposition than the midday sun. Many of that number are teenage girls who are pressured into visiting tanning parlours by their peers.
On paper, the industry's voluntary code looks reasonable. It includes a minimum age of 18, the exclusion of people with fair skin, a requirement that operators are properly trained in using the equipment and assessing skin types, and an obligation to provide safety information. But surveys conducted by the likes of the Consumers Institute have found that very few in the industry follow the code. This has led the Cancer Society to describe it as "toothless".
Self-regulation in any industry remains viable only so long as the agreed standards are met by the vast majority of participants. If such is not the case, the industry invites censure and, ultimately, regulation. The indoor tanning industry has been strongly criticised often enough by consumer organisations, but has done little to meet their concerns. Despite this laxity, it somehow managed to escape the attention of the previous Government. The latest information on the danger posed by sunbeds means that cannot continue.
Some countries already regulate the industry. Most commonly, this involves banning teens from using sunbeds or requiring consent from their parents or doctor. A ban on those under 16 certainly seems appropriate. Youngsters can be hard pressed to make a rational decision at that age, especially if they are subjected to peer pressure. Further, those aged 17 and 18 should have to gain parental or medical permission before venturing into a tanning parlours.
A different approach is required for the hard core of adults who continue to use sunbeds. The best policy would be to prod them about the risk they are taking. Operators should be required to display prominently information about the danger, including the latest conclusions of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Such steps are unlikely to satisfy dermatologists, who see first-hand the damage caused by ultraviolet radiation. Most would be happy to see tanning parlours banned altogether. In time, however, they may start to disappear anyway if the Government responds appropriately and the safety message finds its mark.