While the sun provides free tanning, it is not always reliable. This is why people often turn to tanning beds. When I first heard of tanning beds (or “fake bakes” as they were called), they struck me as a bad idea. My view was supported by various tanning bed horror stories told to me by one of my grad school roommates. She was a nurse, so she had first hand experience with the various negative consequences of tanning beds.
While the dangers of skin cancer have been well publicized, people continue to use tanning beds. Part of this is due to the fact that the tanned look has remained popular and is considered a sexy look. This has not always been the case. Many years ago, the pale look was considered the proper look for white women. Another part of the reason is that the Indoor Tanning Association has been conducting a pro-tanning ad campaign. The campaign addresses the health concerns about tanning by making use of findings about vitamin D. As has long been known, the body will naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is rather important and has various health benefits.
However, what the ITA campaign fails to mention is that a person can get enough sunlight to generate an adequate amount of vitamin D fairly quickly. For pale people, the needed exposure time is about 10 minutes. People with darker skin will need about twenty minutes. Further, people can get vitamin D via dietary supplements or as part of food. For people living in areas with inadequate natural sunlight, tanning beds can provide a means of getting UV light. However, for most people the tanning bed is not a good choice. It can also present a health danger. The main danger is, of course, skin cancer.
Skin cancer cases have been increasing since the 1970s. Part of this is due to changing behavior and dress, part is also due to environmental changes and part seems to be due to tanning beds.
The prime demographic for tanning beds are 15-29 year old females and this group has a larger incidence of skin cancer than males of the same age. Dr. Anir Dhir, a dermatologist in Lexington, Kentucky notes that of the 800 cases of melanoma he has treated, “60 of them were in women younger than 30 years old, and all of them were avid tanning-bed users.” Newsweek, March 19 These findings are typical, thus indicating a connection between tanning beds and cancer. This is hardly surprising. It has been established that UV exposure is a causal factor in skin cancer and tanning beds expose people to UV radiation.
It might be wondered why tanning beds are still legal, given that they seem to be clearly a threat to health. The answer is the same as for tobacco-money and organization. The indoor tanning industry brings in about $5 billion a year and has the well organized ITA to fend off attacks.
As with tobacco, most users of tanning beds know that what they are doing is risky. The attitude of many people is best expressed by Alex Lloyd. She goes to the tanning salon five days each week. She is aware of the risk, but ignores it. In her words: “A lot of people tell me I do it too much, blah, blah, blah. But I just don’t care.” Newsweek, March 19.
From a moral and health standpoint, it seems that she is making the wrong choice in not caring. After all, she is intentionally putting her health at risk in return for merely having a tan. That seems to be rather irrational. It also seems immoral for the tanning salon to provide her with the means to hurt herself.
Of course, it can be argued that people should have the right to harm themselves if they are aware of the risks and accept them. After all, people are allowed to smoke, drink, drive cars, and so on and these activities all put people at risk. While it seems foolish to risk somethings so serious (skin cancer) for something so frivolous (a tan), the freedom to do stupid things seems to be an unavoidable part of freedom. As such, people should be allowed to go to tanning beds.
This, as noted above, assumes that the people are making an informed stupid choice. The ITA seems to be somewhat deceptive in its ad campaign. While it is true that UV radiation does enable the body to create vitamin D, exposure to UV radiation also has serious health risks. To downplay these risks is morally unacceptable and the ITA should be honest about the risks. Natural enough, they can appeal to the fact that almost all advertising campaigns are (by their very nature) acts of deceit, downplaying and so forth. However, the mere fact that everyone does such things hardly makes it right-this is an appeal to common practice.
In sum, it is acceptable for people to use tanning beds, provided that they are informed of the risks they are taking. ITA’s ad campaign does seem to be immoral in that it is trying to get people to engage in a harmful activity by means of what could be regarded as deception.