Tanning Beds: Lawsuits in Waiting?

Doyice Cotten published this article in Fitness Management several years  ago.  The warnings here are no less true or necessary than they were then. Should you be offering a tanning bed in your club or business?

691668726_368a10aac6_oNorman Welke, an Ohio man, purchased an at-home tanning bed from Wolf Tanning Company of Marietta Georgia in 1993 and has used it regularly until he learned that the bed may have caused a malignant melanoma to form on his chest.  The cancer required a hospital stay and surgical treatment.   In May, 2004, Welke filed suit against Wolf Tanning and Welke’s attorney plans to ask the judge to allow the suit to continue on behalf of all people injured by tanning beds.  As evidence continues to accumulate regarding the potential danger of tanning beds, one wonders how long it will be before lawsuits begin to be filed against health clubs offering access to the beds.

Would you be surprised to know that tanning beds are a $2 billion industry?  More than 28 million Americans are tanning indoors annually at about 25,000 tanning salons, health and fitness clubs, and other establishments around the country.

Health and fitness club operators need to ask themselves several questions.

Do tanning beds present a significant danger of skin cancer to clients who use them? At one time the connection between tanning beds and skin cancer was tenuous at best.  Not so today!  The evidence of risk has become overwhelming.

Some from the tanning industry say that tanning is actually beneficial – that a tan helps to protect against skin cancer.  Others say that indoor tanning is safer than outdoor tanning since tanning lights emit about 40% fewer UVB rays – the most harmful type of radiation.  They argue that the amount of exposure is easier to control than when outdoors.  Still others argue that UVA rays from indoor tanning has no harmful effect on the skin and that when one tans indoors, one avoids the risk of burning.

Research, however, disputes most of these claims.  While indoor tanning may have some benefits over outdoor tanning, most research shows that UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and cause loss of elasticity, premature aging, and wrinkles.  They are less likely to burn, but are still linked to malignant melanoma, other skin cancers, and other skin problems.  A study in Sweden found that persons using tanning beds 10 times a year are 7 times more likely to develop a malignant melanoma.  The study showed that occasional tanners increased the chance of melanoma by 300% and those tanning 10 times a year increased their risks by 800%.  Other research has shown that one can burn during indoor tanning.  According to the CDC, tanning beds can cause eye damage, including conjunctivitis, corneal infections, and cornea or retinal damage.

So which is better, indoor tanning or outdoor tanning?  Neither is good.  The phrase “a good, healthy tan” is a myth.

Would a health club be legally liable if a client contracts skin cancer? This is hard to answer at this time.  This writer is not familiar with any current litigation against clubs, but the first will probably open the floodgate.  Whether a court would find a club liable is arguable, but thinking back to the recent history of litigation relating to the cigarette industry should not put operators who provide tanning beds at ease.

How can a club reduce its risk related to tanning beds? Several approaches might be taken:  1) Investigate the amount of rays emitted by machines of various brands and purchase beds that have lower emission levels.  2) Reduce the length of time that a client may use a tanning bed.  3) Consult with dermatologists who are experts in the field to learn as much as you can. 4) Provide more complete and more informative warnings for the client.  One must believe that if clients knew the extent of the danger, they would be less likely to participate in indoor tanning. 5) Require that the client sign a liability waiver and an informed consent form. 6) Or . . . the best form of risk management would be to eliminate the tanning beds.  It is understandable that operators do not want to eliminate a significant source of income, but we must face the fact that there is no way to make indoor tanning safe for the client.   And when one thinks about it, doesn’t providing tanning beds run counter to the stated mission of most health and fitness clubs?

Photo Credit: Zieak’s Photostream – http://www.flickr.com/photos/zieak/691668726/?addedcomment=1#comment72157623789624998