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By: Dinah Wisenbreg Brin, Special to CNBC.com
Is there any such thing as a safe tan?” asked Merritt, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina. “The answer is, `There is not.’”
Encouraged by media images and tanning industry marketing showing tans as sexy and healthy, many people — especially teens and young adults — head to the beach, backyard or tanning bed to get that look, notwithstanding warnings and public service announcements about cancer, premature wrinkling and blotchy skin.
Skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than 3.5 million diagnoses each year in more than 2 million people, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
The problem comes with human and financial costs — much like other pressing health problems in America, such as Alzheimer's and our aging population. Roughly one American dies of melanoma every hour, health advocates say. And skin cancer in the U.S. costs an estimated $1.7 billion to treat and $3.8 billion in lost productivity a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, the incidence of skin cancer appears to be increasing. Treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers in the United States rose by nearly 77 percent from 1992 to 2006, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Skin melanomas rose by nearly 24 percent for men and more than 26 percent for women in the U.S. from 2004 to 2008, according to the CDC.
Diagnosis of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer even though it accounts for less than 5 percent of all cases, has risen dramatically among young adults. It’s the most common form of cancer among people ages 25 to 29 and the second-most common for those 15 to 29, the Skin Cancer Foundation says.
Though we’re trying harder than ever, there’s a little bit of a deaf-ear effect,” said Dr. David Bank, spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York.
Despite the death rate, melanoma is “theoretically, 100 percent curable” if people would at least get annual skin checks and catch it early, he said.
Bank cited recent research from the Mayo Clinic showing that from 1970 to 2009, melanoma incidence increased eightfold among young Minnesota women ages 18 to 39 and fourfold among young men.
The increase may be linked in part to greater awareness and detection as many more people now visit dermatologists and more physicians in other specialties refer patients, Bank said.
“I think there’s been a whole constellation of reasons why those numbers are there,” and it will take more time to ferret out whether there’s a greater prevalence of the disease itself and not just wider diagnosis, Bank said.
Over protests from the indoor tanning industry, health advocates in and out of government draw a link to sunbeds, pointing to studies indicating that ultraviolet radiation from indoor increases melanoma risk by 75 percent.
The World Health Organization has added UV radiation from tanning beds to its list of the most dangerous carcinogenic radiation, the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention notes.
"Some in the public health community compare indoor tanning — a $5 billion a year industry —to the tobacco industry: both tobacco and tanning are associated with cancer and other health risks; both are sold as providing positive social benefits; and both get their customers when they are young and less concerned about the long-term health risks," the council says on its website.
Various other research points to risky tanning behavior among young adults.
A 2011 CDC report found that from 1999 to 2009, the percentage of white U.S. high school students who never or rarely wore sunscreen when outside on sunny days increased from 57.5 percent to 69.4 percent.