WASHINGTON — Just as millions head to tanning beds to prepare for spring break, the Food and Drug Administration will be debating how to toughen warnings that those sunlamps pose a cancer risk.
There's increasing scientific consensus that there's no such thing as a safe tan.
The World Health Organization's cancer division last summer listed tanning beds as definitive cancer-causers, right alongside the ultraviolet radiation that both they and the sun emit. They had long been considered "probable" carcinogens, but what tipped the scales was an analysis of numerous studies that concluded the risk of melanoma jumps by 75 percent in people who used tanning beds in their teens and 20s.
Next comes the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has long regulated tanning beds as "Class I devices," a category of low-risk medical devices that includes bandages.
Tanning beds do bear some warnings about the cancer link, but the FDA recently decided those labels aren't visible enough to consumers and don't fully convey the risk, especially to young people.
So in March, the FDA will have a public hearing to explore stricter regulation: both stiffer warnings and reclassifying tanning beds to allow other steps.
"We don't recommend using them at all, but we know people do use them so we want to make them as low-risk as possible," says FDA UV radiation specialist Sharon Miller.
The Indoor Tanning Association, already fighting efforts to tax tanning salons to help pay for Congress' health care overhaul, argues there's no new science to justify increased FDA regulation. Any risk is to people who overdo it, says ITA president Dan Humiston, arguing that's easier to do in the sun.
The industry is open to some change in warning labels, Humiston says, to ensure customers "understand the whole process, so there's no chance they could be overexposed, no chance they could get a sunburn."
But the FDA also says some people go too often, using tanning beds three times a week, for example, when its research shows once a week would provide visually the same tan.
Melanoma is not the only risk. Also linked to UV exposure are basal and squamous cell carcinomas. They're usually easily removed but the American Cancer Society counts 2,000 annual deaths. Melanoma is more lethal: Nearly 69,000 U.S. cases were diagnosed last year, and about 8,650 people died.
Fair-skinned people who don't tan easily are at highest risk. Melanoma is particularly linked to sunburns at a young age, and while it usually strikes in the 40s and 50s, doctors are seeing ever-younger cases.
A good tan provides the equivalent of a sunscreen rated just SPF-4, and even good tanners can get melanoma, says Dr. Margaret Tucker of the National Cancer Institute. Their risk, like everybody's, increases with increasing UV exposure.