In May, I watched a group of high school students pose for pictures before their prom. To prepare for this rite of passage, nearly all the girls — including my daughter — spent hours on tanning beds. My wife and I had tried to talk Laura out of signing up for a three-month promotion at a salon. Your skin is naturally beautiful, we said, don’t risk hurting it. We mentioned a new study that showed an increase in cases of melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer, particularly among females age 15 to 19. But getting in the way of a 17-year-old and her prom plans is like parking a car on the tracks when the train’s approaching. If “everyone” was going to be bronzed, Laura was, too. It’s tougher than you might think to get teenagers to consider long-term consequences.
For me and a lot of others, those potential consequences are reality. Laura’s prom photos were taken a few hours after a patch of skin cancer was excised from my left arm, probably the result of sun damage inflicted years ago. It’s a procedure I’ve undergone four times.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. That’s more than the number of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers combined. The FDA now wants to strengthen its tanning bed regulations and issue a “strong recommendation” against minors using them. Youths under 18 are banned from using them in places like California and Vermont.
In spite of this, many people still insist a tan makes them look and feel better. To Laura, so focused on her appearance for the prom, it didn’t register that Dad was regularly being sliced open and stitched.
Getting across the message about another unhealthy behavior, cigarette smoking, has seemed easy by comparison. Research on tobacco use has become so damning that it can no longer be counterbalanced by a “cool” factor, even when you throw Mad Men into the mix. There’s nothing appealing about a solitary figure puffing away outside in the winter. But tanning remains appealing, especially among teens: Nearly 1 in 4 high school girls tan. It’s associated with good weather and good times.
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