We Are Sunshine

The Media’s Anti-Tanning Bias

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

When it comes to reporting medical news, the news media seems to be blinded by the dermatology and pharmaceutical industry’s sun scare messages, as studies about alleged risks of UV exposure aren’t treated the same way as studies about other alleged risks.

NBC News today reported that a study published Tuesday in the medical journal Cancer suggests that having dental X-rays doubles your risk of certain brain tumors. But in reporting on a survey-study about the potential dangers of dentistry’s common usage of X-ray radiation — sunlight wavelengths below 10 nm in the light spectrum that do not penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere from the sun — NBC reporters are quick to point out that the study was just a survey and is “the weakest kind” of medical study.

“Significantly, the study is the weakest type of epidemiology, a so-called “case control” study,” NBC News reported Tuesday. “The researchers interviewed 1,433 people diagnosed with meningioma and compared them with 1,350 people with no such diagnosis. The two groups were matched for age, gender, race, income and places of residence. In a tiny portion of the cases the researchers actually looked at dental records. But, most often, they asked the study subjects – whose average age was 57 – to recall their history of dental X-rays going back to childhood.”

NBC even editorialized in its report – urging people not to interpret a 100 percent increase in cancer-risk from an epidemiology study as meaning that people should stop having x-rays. “It sounds frightening – and there is no question it invokes a serious warning – but even those who carried out the research urge people not to overreact. ‘Our take home message is don’t panic. Don’t stop going to the dentist,’ said the lead author of the study Dr. Elizabeth Claus, a neurological surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the Yale School of Public Health.”

Hypocritically, when it comes to reporting on UV exposure and suntanning – both of which use parts of the sun’s life spectrum that do reach the Earth from the sun and which are necessary for life on the planet – NBC and the rest of the media are quick to suggest that the same kind of science, case-control epidemiology studies, are all you need to bash sunlight.

In an NBC News story published a week ago citing a Mayo Clinic Dermatology Unit study that blamed indoor tanning for an alleged increase in melanoma incidence in women under 40 in one Minnesota County, NBC quoted the study’s researcher saying, “All correlations point toward that as the reason for the increase.” No caveats – just condemnation.

NBC did not even acknowledge the obvious confounders that Smart Tan supplied to the media – such as the fact that the study didn’t even collect indoor tanning data at all, and that the study is totally contradicted by the nation’s largest cancer registry, which does not show the same increase in that age group.

What’s more, the only studies dermatology has to attack indoor tanning are “case-control epidemiology” – surveys that are “the weakest kind” of science when you’re attacking dentistry, but are just fine when attacking tanning.

“In defending dentistry, the same news source suggests that studies designed only to show correlation, but not causation, are all you need,” Smart Tan Vice President Joseph Levy said. “And yet when it comes to tanning, most of the case-control studies do not show an increase in risk, the ones that do do not show a doubling of risk like the dentistry study, and there are huge caveats that need to be mentioned but almost never are, including the fact that UV exposure – unlike X-rays – is necessary for all life on this planet.”

To read NBC’s coverage of the dental x-ray study click here.

To read NBC’s coverage of the Mayo Clinic melanoma study click here.