Of all the hazards that young people face at college, here is one that probably crossed few parents’ minds: the easy access to tanning beds, often found in off-campus housing and sometimes paid for with university-sponsored cash cards.
Now, cancer-prevention advocates are targeting colleges in a campaign to unplug indoor tanning, citing studies that link the practice to an increase in melanoma among young people.
And colleges, including in New England, are beginning to change policies. The University of New Hampshire and Salem State University, for example, have moved to stop use of their college cash cards — debit cards that students use to shop — at tanning salons.
“The university is committed to not facilitating or encouraging tanning,” UNH spokeswoman Erika Mantz said in an e-mail. The new policy may be in place in time for the fall semester, she said.
In a study published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, Sherry L. Pagoto, a researcher and associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and her team examined 125 top universities, and found that 12 percent had tanning beds on campus. At 42 percent of the schools, tanning beds operated in off-campus apartment complexes that catered to students, almost always offered as part of the rent. At 14 percent of colleges and universities, tanning salons were among the vendors accepting the school’s cash card.
“I doubt there’s a university that’s intentionally doing something they know is harmful,” Pagoto said. But until recently, she said, the issue just was not on administrators’ radar.
Still, the presence of tanning beds on and near campus, and the use of cash cards, Pagoto said, can be perceived as a university endorsement of tanning, which is associated with an elevated risk of cancer.
Melanoma, a cancer of the cells that produce pigment, accounts for about 2 percent of all skin cancers but the majority of deaths from skin cancer. Exposure to ultraviolet rays from sunshine or tanning beds is an important factor in many, but not all, melanomas, and has been blamed for an increase in melanoma cases, especially among the young.
“We know that college students are using tanning beds a great deal,” said Deb Girard , executive director of the Melanoma Foundation of New England.
Lisa McGovern, executive director of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Program and wife of Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, said she hopes Pagoto’s work will spur conversations with universities. Many of the congressional spouses have children in college.
At a recent meeting in Washington where Pagoto spoke, “There was a lot of curiosity, ‘Where does my campus stand?’ ” McGovern said.
“It’s clear that there’s a great need for awareness about skin cancer and damage caused by the sun and particularly these indoor tanning devices,” said Charles W. Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who attended the Washington event. “We know that 30 million Americans use indoor tanning beds each year, and 3.3 million are teenagers,” said Dent, who cochairs the Congressional Skin Cancer Caucus and whose father-in-law died of melanoma.
In December, Dent and Representative Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, along with three other members of Congress, wrote to 18 universities asking them to remove tanning salons from their cash cards. So far, according to DeLauro’s office, the University of Illinois and the University of Pittsburgh have agreed to do so.
Among the 125 schools that Pagoto studied, there were regional variations, with the highest prevalence of on-campus tanning in the Midwest and the highest prevalence of tanning in off-campus housing in the South. In the Northeast, 13 percent had on-campus tanning, and 19.6 percent had tanning in off-campus housing.
At Salem State University, access to tanning salons became an issue long before Pagoto’s research was published. Kalei Ensminger, a nurse practitioner at the university’s health services, was leading a melanoma awareness campaign in spring 2014 when someone pointed out a contradiction: The university’s cash card was being used at tanning salons. Ensminger worked with the office of student life to change the policy, and by that summer, tanning sessions could no longer be purchased with the card.
Joseph Levy, scientific adviser to the American Suntanning Association, which represents tanning salons, disputes the value of this approach.
“The tanning industry believes we are part of the solution,” Levy said. Noting that sunburns are a risk factor for skin cancer, he said, “We are teaching sunburn prevention more effectively than those teaching sun abstinence.”
But Pagoto and others say that tanning — indoor or outdoor — damages the skin and can promote cancer. The World Health Organization has classified tanning beds as carcinogenic. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration changed the labeling requirement on sunlamps from “low-risk” to “moderate risk,” and required a posted warning saying they should not be used on people under age 18.