Group Promotes Benefits of `Moderate' Sun Tan (2/24)

c.1997 Cox News Service

WASHINGTON -- The indoor tanning industry is about to launch a nationwide campaign to convince Americans that ``moderate'' exposure to sunlight not only isn't harmful, but could save 30,000 lives a year by reducing the risk of cancer.

And they're serious.

``We're trying to put perspective into something that has lost perspective,'' said Joseph A. Levy, executive director of the International Smart Tan Network, a Jackson, Mich.-based group that represents 27,000 indoor tanning facilities throughout North America.

``People don't realize there may be risks in avoiding the sun,'' he adds.

Not surprisingly, the group's claims fly in the face of nearly unanimous opposition from the medical community. The latter warns that there is no proof that exposure to the sun can prevent cancer, and there are mountains of research indicating a strong relationship between exposure to the sun's -- and tanning salons' -- ultraviolet rays and skin cancer.

To carry their ``sun-is-good'' message to the public, the tanning industry is focusing on journalists, particularly health reporters.

Last month, the Smart Tan Network began running the first of six monthly advertisements in ``Editor & Publisher,'' a weekly journalism trade publication. It also began issuing press releases on the Public Relations Newswire. And that will be followed up this spring with an information kit ``to every health reporter that we know of in North America,'' Levy said.

Levy declined to disclose the cost of the campaign, but said it would pale in comparison to what the pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies spend in advertising sunscreens and related products.

``We'll probably spend less than a full-page ad in ``Cosmopolitan'' which is about $50,000,'' Levy said. ``The beauty magazines run about 20 pages of cosmetic or sunscreen ads that relate to UV (ultraviolet) damage an issue.

``It's a big business -- fear of the sun,'' he adds with a hint of sarcasm.

Although the Smart Tan Network is composed of indoor tanning companies, their message primarily deals with exposure to natural sunlight. Levy said that is because people who tan in the sun are most likely to use indoor tanning facilities during the winter.

``The sun is not a competitor to the indoor tanning industry, the sun is a complement,'' Levy said.

Still, there has been a steady increase in melanomas -- the most common form of skin cancer -- since the early 1970s. The American Cancer Society predicts that there are about 35,000 new cases of melanoma a year, 7,200 of which will result in death.

Rex Amonette, immediate past president of the American Academy of Dermatology, said there are two types of melanoma: one that develops without apparent exposure to sunlight and one that is stimulated by exposure to sunlight.

People who tan easily, usually darker-skinned people, generally develop melanomas at a lower rate than fair-skinned people who do not tan easily, but that doesn't mean people should develop a tan to prevent melanomas, Amonette said.

The tanning industry argues that people who develop a gradual tan are less likely to develop melanomas than those who tan erratically or get sunburned.

The basis for the tanning industry's arguments are a handful of reports which either claim beneficial results from moderate exposure to sunlight or warn of potential health problems from sunlight depravation.

The common factor in these reports is the theory that vitamin D reduces colon and breast cancer, which have high mortality rates and cause about 138,000 deaths annually.

Indeed, the National Institutes of Health is in the midst of a multi-year clinical trial evaluating whether calcium and vitamin D supplements could reduce colon cancer and bone fractures in post-menopausal women.

Since the body's production of vitamin D is activated by sunlight, some reports suggest that exposure to the sun could reduce some forms of cancer. The tanning industry has seized on these works and, in some cases gone beyond the scientific findings, to bolster their claims.

Several studies by epidemiologists Frank and Cedric Garland of the University of California at San Diego have noted a link between sun exposure and certain forms of cancer deaths.

Their 1980 study, for instance, showed that colon-cancer death rates were significantly lower in parts of the United States where there was more sunshine. The Garlands' more recent studies in the U.S. and Russia showed a similar pattern for breast cancer.

The mortality rate for all forms of cancer in the United States in 1995 was lowest in sun-drenched Utah and Hawaii, according to the Cancer Journal for Clinicians. In Utah it was 107 deaths per 100,000 residents; in Hawaii it was 112 per 100,000. By comparison, it was 148 in Alaska and 152 in Maine. (It was 134 in Florida; 133 in Georgia; 132 in Texas, 134 in North Carolina, 149 in Ohio, 124 in Colorado).

But Dr. Michael Thun, an epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, said the link between cancer deaths and geographic titude ``is rather weak.''

``Sunlight is not the only thing that changes as you go from north to south,'' Thun said, noting differences in physical activity, diet and access to vegetables.

Among the reports most often quoted by the indoor tanning industry is a 1993 study by H. Gordon Ainsleigh, a Meadow Vista, Calif., chiropractor whom the Smart Tan Network identifies as a physician.

Ainsleigh's report is an analysis of previous studies on the impact of sunlight or vitamin D that begins with a 1937 study which found that U.S. Navy sailors had eight times the expected rate of skin cancer, but only two-fifths the expected rate of internal cancer.

Ainsleigh strongly supports the tanning industry's contention that people can protect themselves from cancer by moderate tanning -- including the use of artificial tanning beds.

But two other researchers whose work is used the by the tanning industry to bolster its claims said they don't advocate using tanning salons to reduce cancer.

In its information packet, the Smart Tan Network quotes one, Dr. Michael Holick, chief of endocrinology, nutrition and diabetes at Boston University, as advocating exposure to sunlight to prevent disease.

But Holick, noting ``intriguing evidence'' in laboratory studies that vitamin D may have beneficial effects, said ``there is not enough evidence,'' to suggest that exposure to sunlight can prevent cancer.

One reason is that, although sunlight activates the vitamin D that may reduce the growth of cancer cells, the body only produces as much activated vitamin D as it can use, Holick said. Therefore, increased exposure to sunlight does not increase the amount of activated vitamin D the body will produce.

``I don't advocate it (tanning) as a healthful measure. I simply say that if you're going to do it, do it responsibly,'' Holick said.

Levy said that's what the tanning industry is advocating, and that's why he supports the use of sun index guides in newspaper weather reports.

``I don't use the word safe (when referring to tanning) because safe assumes that something can be done recklessly without fear of injury,'' Levy said. ``We're saying this is a smart activity, and you need to be thinking about what your skin can handle... What we're trying to promote is being sun smart and avoiding sunburn.''

The tanning industry argues that people who tan indoors are 57 percent less likely to get sunburns -- which are linked to melanomas.

Dermatologists argue, however, that the best way to be sun smart is to avoid tanning.

``There is no such thing as a safe tan,'' said Dr. Darrell Rigel, professor of dermatology at New York University and secretary-treasurer of the American Academy of Dermatology. ``Tanning means your body senses that it's being injured by the ultraviolet rays that hit it. To get tanned you have to be injured ... To go into a tanning salon just to get a tan makes absolutely no sense.''

Thun, of the American Cancer Society, said ``it's a long leap to claim that the potential benefits of moderate tanning in reducing the risk of internal cancer exceeds the known risk of skin cancer, including melanoma... The advertising is ahead of the science.''

For clients of The New York Times News Service

NYT-02-24-97 1424EST