Special Report: Burning debate over tanning salons
Published Thursday, March 29, 2012 8:02AM EDT
MONTREAL - Banned in Nova Scotia and largely unregulated in Quebec, provincial lawmakers are looking at what they can do to make tanning salons safer. Without rules or guidelines, anyone can open a salon.
For such an unregulated industry, the risks of cancer are tremendous.
"I will never go back in a tanning salon. Never, never, never," said Rachelle Pitre, a Quebec crown prosecutor.
While Pitre loves a good fight, tanning beds are personal.
"When you go to a tanning bed, you are playing with your life and with your health," said Pitre.
The prosecutor wasn't always so averse to tanning. Pitre says that she loved the way she looked after a visit to the tanning salon. She spent most of her life using tanning beds, starting with her first visit at the age of 16 and her last on her 31st birthday.
"At my last birthday I decided to go to the tanning bed before my party and it was the last time I would ever go. I learned a few weeks later that I had skin cancer," said Pitre.
The skin cancer survivor discovered that she had six tumours: four on her face, one on her breast and one on her thigh.
"I'm really scared, I don't like the sun anymore, I see it like an enemy in my life," said Pitre.
The Canadian Cancer Society puts the blame squarely on tanning beds and is calling for the Quebec government to ban the salons for everyone under 18. According to the CCS, younger Quebecers are developing life-long habits—the earlier they start, the earlier they are hooked.
The CCS also claims that young skin is more sensitive to dangerous UV rays.
"Every month in Quebec 18 people die of skin cancer. That's month after month after month," said Melanie Champagne, a spokesperson for the cancer society. "Even if you go just a couple of times to the tanning salons before you're 35 years old, it increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75 per cent."
Maude Vaillancourt had heard about the tanning debate, but that didn't stop her from climbing into a tanning bed.
"Like every girl I started at prom," said Vaillancourt. "I was like, I need to be tanned because I need to be pretty in my dress,
"When you go in a tanning salon, no one is telling you that it's not good for you, they're telling you it's good for you."
At 19, Vaillancourt is exactly the kind of person who the cancer society is worried about, a teen with a tanning bed habit.
For years, doctors have warned that too much exposure to the sun can be dangerous, causing premature aging, skin damage and cancer.
Dr. Wilson Miller says tanning beds are even worse.
"The incidence of melanoma has clearly gone up," said Miller, an oncologist at the Jewish General Hospital. "I believe tanning beds are clearly a risk factor for the development of melanoma which is a very dangerous thing."
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. In the last 15 years, the number of cases in Quebec has doubled. Miller says he's now seeing younger patients, mostly women who use tanning beds.
"We have had a overall increase of melanoma of women especially in their 20s and 30s," said Miller.
According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, tanning beds "increase the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma." The World Health Organization says that the UV radiation from tanning beds "poses a risk of skin cancer and that no person under 18 years of age should use one." The WHO has classified tanning beds as "the highest cancer risk category" and carcinogenic to humans.
That may seem like a lot of evidence, but Annie Goulet doesn't buy it.
"I will never give up on tanning. Even if they tell me I'm not allowed, I will find a tanning bed somewhere," said Goulet. "I don't see where it actually says, ‘Yeah, it gives you skin cancer.' No!"
Goulet has owned the Bronzage Lucyann salon in Montreal's east end for six years. Goulet calls the medical attacks on her livelihood an "exaggeration."
"I think anything that you abuse or don't use correctly there are dangers. Everything in life has dangers," said Goulet. "I actually think you can have a nice little golden glow without it being dangerous."
In its defence, the tanning bed industry cites studies that show some exposure to ultraviolet rays is actually good for you, whether from a tanning bed or the sun, because it produces Vitamin D.
"It's not giving you cancer if you're not over exposed, it can even protect you from skin cancer," said Alain Fournier, president of the Quebec Association of Tanning Salons.
"They are bending the truth," said Fournier. "There's no relation with age. It's not true that there's a problem if you're under 18 to get tanned."
The need for regulation
While both sides agree that the industry needs better regulation, neither is willing to budge on the age issue. The decision is now in the hands of the health minister.
"The time is now, the time is now. They have to act now, before summer, before prom night, it's urgent," said Champagne, as the CCS pressures Health Minister Yves Bolduc to impose tougher standards.
As for Pitre, she says that she is reminded of cancer every time she looks in a mirror, and while there's no proof tanning beds caused her cancer, she's telling her story as a warning to teens.
"I want to give them a real story and a real person who can tell them don't go there," said Pitre. "If one, only one teenager listens to me and decides not to go back to the tanning beds, it will be a big, big accomplishment for me."
That has already happened. Vaillancourt decided to stop using tanning beds, but only after her cousin was diagnosed with skin cancer.
"It made me stop," said Vaillancourt. "If that thing had not happened I think I would go right now to a tanning salon and I just wouldn't be that informed about it."
Vaillancourt's cousin recently discovered that her cancer has returned, she has nine new tumours that will need to be removed over the coming weeks.
Three Canadian provinces and a dozen U.S. states are considering legislation to ban the use of tanning beds by people under the age of 18.