Sue Kedgley: Sunbed regulation needed

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It's a mystery to me why sunbeds are unregulated in New Zealand.

We know they increase our risk of developing skin cancer and that the more people use them, and the younger they start using them, the greater their risk.

We know, too, that thousands of young women use them on a regular basis, oblivious to the risks.

We also know we have the highest rates of melanoma and skin cancer in the world. So why on earth wouldn't we regulate sunbeds, to reduce the significant and entirely preventable public health risk they pose?

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, ultraviolet radiation from sunbeds is carcinogenic to humans and poses a health risk similar to asbestos and arsenic. The agency says sunbeds increase our risk of developing a melanoma by 20 per cent, and this risk increases by 75 per cent when people start using them before they are 30.

It is calling on all governments to regulate their use and many have already done so, including 10 European nations and several states in Canada and the US.

Other governments, such as Brazil and Australia, are banning them altogether.

But here in New Zealand, sunbed machines remain completely unregulated. There are thousands of these machines in gyms, hairdressing salons, tanning clinics and people's homes and anyone can operate them. There's no limit on the amount of UV radiation operators can use, or how long people can be exposed to it. Nor is there any standard training for sunbed operators, and many unqualified staff operate them.

A voluntary industry standard stipulates that no one with pale skin or who is under 18 should use them. The Ministry of Health has asked district health boards to visit sunbed operators in their areas to provide guidance on safety practices.

But despite industry claims that the standard is being adhered to, successive surveys by Consumer New Zealand have found it is not. Their most recent survey, published earlier this year, found that a third of operators still don't display notices warning customers of the risks from UV light, or stipulate that sunbeds should never be used by people whose skin is fair, burns readily or is freckled.

That's why a coalition of organisations, including the Cancer Society, have been pleading with governments for many years to regulate the industry and make compliance with the standard mandatory.

Finally, in April last year the Associate Minister of Health, Jo Goodhew, announced that the Government would regulate the industry and prohibit the use of sunbeds for people aged under 18.

More than a year later there's still no sign of any legislation and no prospect of it emerging before the election. After the election, I suspect, it will continue to languish on the backburner in the face of other pressing political priorities. Even when legislation is eventually drafted and tabled, it could take a further two or three years to weave its way through the labyrinthine processes of Parliament.

Meantime, thousands of young women will routinely and inappropriately use unregulated sunbeds for cosmetic tanning, and vastly increase their risk of getting skin cancer and melanoma.

Faced with government inaction, the Auckland Council has taken the initiative and is intending to regulate sunbeds from July 1, and require sunbed businesses to comply with a new code of practice. But why should operators in the rest of New Zealand remain unregulated, and why should those of us who live outside Auckland not be protected from this significant public health risk?

While our Government drags its feet on the issue, the Australian Government is acting swiftly. All sunbed machines will be banned by the end of this year.

More than 2000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with melanoma each year and more than 300 die from it, and there's no question that sunbeds are contributing to our soaring melanoma rates. It's a shocking disease and it's difficult and expensive to treat. Surely we should be taking similar action here.

Sue Kedgley is a Wellington regional councillor and former Green MP.

- NZ Herald

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