Right now the probability that a young, healthy Canadian will contact the deadly skin Cancer called melanoma is 1 in 5000. Want to know how to double those odds? Take just ONE tanning session before age 21 (source—health Canada). That’s all you have to do.
Today, January 29, 2014 the NL provincial government enacted legislation that makes it illegal for anyone under age 19 to use commercial sun-tanning equipment. Normally I’d have a problem with a heavy handed “saving us from ourselves” piece of legislation like this but maybe this one is different. Perhaps it’s more in line with seatbelt legislation and, in the end, worth parting with a precious bit of that thing we so casually refer to as “freedom” in pursuit of the greater good.
The commonly-cited justification sounds straightforward enough. The ultraviolet light (I will avoid the more correct term “radiation” lest I be accused of adding unwanted fuel to what is already an emotional issue) produced by the tanning machines has a proven causal connection to an increased risk of contracting such nasties as the aforementioned skin cancer as well as eye-ailments like cataracts. Based on that alone, it’s easy to see why there would be widespread support for a law that is designed to protect people.
But then again, the counter argument is also deceptively simple. To the extent that they harm nobody else there are many who believe that the state has no right in preventing people from participating in potentially dangerous activities. In this view it’s a personal matter and perhaps the government should mind our collective business instead of limiting individual’s freedom. After all, crossing the road, shoveling snow, driving, and eating fast food are all potentially dangerous activities, each with significant, measurable health and mortality risks. Why pick on tanning? The fact is, for most clients, it will pose much less risk in the long run than say, the poutine habit enjoyed weekly by the many finger-wagging protesters. There’s also the matter of the devastating effect this will likely have on a bunch of currently thriving suntanning establishments. To say, “We, as a society, don’t care about the owners and employees because, after all, the business was built around hurting people,” does come across as somewhat sensationalist and mean-spirited when you think about it.
But we don’t need to end it there as it turns out. There are additional and rather compelling arguments on the positive side. First we can rip a page from J S Mill and adopt a utilitarian stance; that is, maximizing the amount of good that can be done for society as a whole even if it negatively affects a few individuals along the way. Every tanning session prevented is, potentially, a life saved. OK, that’s stretching it, but you get the idea. As for poutine, let someone else argue that one because it’s probably just as justified; a battle to be fought later on.
But there’s another justification, one as easy to understand as dollars and cents. Melanoma is deadly but treatable. Approximately 10% of the patients who contract it will die from it. If caught early, though, simple removal, at a cost of around $2000 to $3000 will do the trick. A more advanced case can cost as high as $200000 or more to treat through a mixture of surgery and chemo. That’s a lot of money, any way you look at it, so there’s significant cost savings to be had, at the state level, by banning any practice that could increase the risk.
So there. Case closed, or so it seems.
But, ahhhh, icebergs again. As is often the case there’s more once you just take a few minutes to look a little deeper.
Why should it come to this? For heaven’s sake why, on earth, should we feel that a simple sun tan is something we have to take so seriously as to pass such laws? Is it really about safety, saving money and utilitarianism? If it were, after all, we’d all be eating cheap, safe state-supplied food, travelling exclusively in public transportation and so on. For anyone with more than a dust of common sense there has to be more afoot.
How about two additional items that aren’t getting talked about much?
Parents are sick and tired of costly, the over-the-top vanity. Why, after all, do young people go to those tanning salons? To get a nice, “healthy” tan, perhaps? Of course not! They go instead to tan up for any number those displays of narcissism that stress everyone’s patience and finances on a regular basis. So called “grads” (spring proms really), “sweet sixteen” parties, birthday parties, cruises; the list goes on and on. Some young people, having heard “Ooooo you’re so special” so often, finally take it to mean they really are a cut above everyone else, as opposed to unique and worthwhile (the intended message). Hey, they “deserve” the royal treatment and that includes tans! The remainder—probably the majority but I have no data to support this—feel compelled to fall in line and do the same so they, too, hound their parents for the money to burn a little colour into their skin. The result is an almost unstoppable set of pressures that results in a huge demand for tanning, whether or not the young people or their parents want any part of it. Education can’t be expected to stem this tide. Rational arguments won’t win against this level of expectation and emotion, but legislation will, and most parents are just fine with that.
There’s a strong bandwagon effect. Yes, there’s powerful peer pressure for tanning among our young people but there’s a strong push-back from a different crowd, the one that reacts with horror at each and every perceived social ill…at least the ones that appear to be on the hit-list for their in-group. You know the ones: they react with indignation whenever anybody drops the hot button words. There are quite a few of those words and most are steeped in controversy—so we won’t go there right now. Underage smoking and drinking & driving come to mind, though, as ones we all can mostly agree on. There are many others. Hey, the causes are mostly good, or at least well-intentioned, but one suspects, from the ferocity of their commitment that there’s a bit more at stake here than a simple desire for social justice. It goes into the realm of the pathological. For some, it seems, the rewards gained from being perceived as saving others transcend all else. Perhaps the urge to win, at all costs, is part of it too. In the end, viewed objectively, the passion and the motives of this group just seem a little off. They are nonetheless a force dedicated to social improvement, regardless of the deeper motives, and tanning salons are among the many things they wish to say “NO!” to.
Me? I’ve always loved being outdoors. Whether it was playing some games, cycling somewhere, hanging out by the beach or just going out on the water in a boat doing…whatever, as a child I spent every moment I could outdoors. Still do. Most of it is grey now but once my hair was that colour most refer to as auburn. I just called it red and left it at that. Like most redheads I’m fair skinned and burn easily in the sun. It’s happened more times than I can count.
Every so often I visit my family doctor. She knows where to find them, the basal cell carcinomas that dot my skin here and there, the result of too many sunburns when I was much younger. For now they’re excised easily enough; just a little squirt of liquid nitrogen kills the growth. They come back.
These days I slather on SPF30 or better every time I go out in the sun. If I’d used it when I was younger the current problem would likely not exist.
Obviously I have my reasons why I support the current legislation but, admittedly, that’s just a personal opinion with an underlying rationale that smacks a bit of self-righteousness tinged with regret. As with most social issues it’s hard to talk, with any credibility, in absolutes.
We can make our choices, though.