Just as teens ready themselves for the strapless gowns of prom season - and swimsuits soon after that - with time at the tanning salon, Ontario's doctors are agitating for a ban on the use of tanning beds for those under the age of 18.
The Ontario Medical Association is trying to battle the notion - fuelled largely by the tanning industry - that tanning beds are safer than the sun. Last month, the association adopted a policy that calls for restrictions on children and teens using tanning equipment.
"Tanning beds are not safe. The exact same ultraviolet rays that cause damage and lead to skin cancer from the sun are there when you lie down on a tanning bed," OMA president Suzanne Strasberg said.
She said young prom-goers especially want that "healthy-looking glow," while others want a basecoat, or "a little bit of a start to a tan because they think it will protect their skin better in the sun. …
"Even tanned skin is damaged skin. They may think it looks healthy, but it's not healthy - it's dangerous," Dr. Strasberg said.
Last July, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer declared tanning beds "carcinogenic to humans" and reclassified tanning equipment to the highest cancer risk category.
The indoor tanning industry is also under scrutiny in the United States, where 30 million people visit an indoor tanning facility annually, according to the Indoor Tanning Association. (No equivalent data are available in Canada, according to the OMA.)
As part of the health care reform bill passed in the House of Representatives last month, indoor tanning will be subject to a 10-per-cent tax in the United States.
An advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is pushing for a ban, and has also recommended that parents of teens and children hoping to use the beds sign a consent form warning of the dangers.
Although the WHO agency suggests there is only "a small to moderate risk of skin cancer independently due to the use of tanning beds or lamps," the FDA stressed that the risk appears greater when tanning bed use begins in childhood.
People who use tanning beds were 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma - two forms of skin cancer - according to a 2002 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
The Canadian Cancer Society and Canadian Dermatology Association are both in favour of restricting tanning bed use to those 18 and older.
In 2008, a private members' bill in Ontario asked for similar restrictions, as did a federal private members' bill. Both failed to be passed into law. New Brunswick had some legislation aimed at protecting those under 18, but that has since been repealed.
The OMA is pushing for provincial legislation similar to the recent cellphone ban, Dr. Strasberg said.
"We made those recommendations for the government, the government enacted the legislation and now the legislation's being enforced."
Steven Gilroy, executive director of the Kelowna, B.C.-based Joint Canadian Tanning Association, said children and teens aren't a "big market" in Canada.
"It's about less than 10 per cent," said Mr. Gilroy, adding that the biggest market is thirtysomethings.
But he allowed: "We're busy with under 18s at prom season. … That's usually the time they come in. Either that or they're going on vacation."
Mr. Gilroy said he supports parental consent for children aged 16 and younger and also recommends remote control of the beds by salon operators, so tanners can't simply add more time themselves, unsupervised.
Ultimately, Mr. Gilroy advises "moderation," and for fair-haired types, abstaining altogether: "They don't tan outside so they shouldn't tan inside either. …
"We don't see it as an age thing. We see it as a skin-type scenario."
Asked whether salon operators consider skin type with their clients, Mr. Gilroy said: "It depends which one you go to."