We Are Sunshine

Journalists Figure Out Anti-Tan Lie

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

2010-05-10 Skeptic copyAnti-tanning pundits are conspicuously exaggerating risks associated with indoor tanning beds by failing to properly identify the absolute weakness of the data they cite, a group representing 1,100 U.S. health care journalists published in a column to its members May 7.

The Association of Health Care Journalists — a U.S. consortium of journalists who cover health care stories — has figured out that anti-tanning lobbyists have misled them, overstating the potential risks of indoor tanning by failing to disclose the comparatively small “absolute risk” of tanning verses non-tanning and instead only citing figures that show “relative risk.”

The main point: Melanoma is uncommon in both tanners and non-tanners, which doesn’t show up when you look at studies that just examine relative risk.

The column, penned by Dr. Ivan Orlansky, AHCJ Treasurer and editor of Reuters Health, is neutral on the subject of indoor tanning, but calls advocacy groups and even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to task for citing figures that do not make sense.

FDA and groups like the American Academy of Dermatology this year have lobbied against indoor tanning by suggesting that indoor tanning clients have a 75 percent higher risk of melanoma if they start tanning at an early age. But the groups have failed to point out that both tanners and non-tanners have less than 0.3 percent chance of getting melanoma.

“This is not an argument for or against tanning beds. It’s an argument for clear explanations of the data behind policy decisions,” Orlansky wrote. “For some people, the cosmetic benefits of tanning beds — and the benefit of vitamin D, for which there are, of course, other sources — might be worth a tiny increase in the risk of melanoma. For others, any increased risk of skin cancer is unacceptable. (And of course, for the tanning industry, the benefits can be measured in other ways — dollars.) But if reporters leave things at “a 75 percent increase,” you’re not giving your readers the most important information they need to judge for themselves. So when you read a study that says something doubles the risk of some terrible disease, ask: Doubles from what to what?”

Orlansky credits Wilmington (Delaware) New Journal reporter Hiran Ratnayake, whose recent story on the subject first reported the relative weakness of melanoma data.

Beyond the weakness of absolute risk in the studies, most journalists have not yet figured out the inherent weaknesses and study design flaws in attempts to suggest a relative risk increase between tanners and non-tanners in the studies, such as the fact that removing those with Skin Type I from studies removes any correlation

To read Orlansky’s column click here.