OPINION: Ever since the 1990s, when successive governments tossed out regulations with reckless abandon, regulation has been unfashionable in New Zealand.
The word "regulation" has become almost a term of abuse, implying excessive government interference in people's lives. Government policy stipulates that regulation should be a last resort, and almost any attempt to regulate is ridiculed as "nanny state".
This explains why industries that pose a potential risk to public health, such as the medical device industry, tattooists, acupuncturists, sunbed operators and cosmetic laser operators have never been regulated.
Governments don't want to be seen to "meddle" in these industries, and prefer the hands-off, laissez-faire approach of self-regulation. You would have hoped that the spectacular failures of deregulation - a $40 billion leaky homes crisis, the financial crisis, Pike River, to name but a few - would have prompted a major re-think, and that governments would now be happy to regulate where self-regulation has manifestly failed, or where there is a significant risk to public health and safety.
But the Government seems as reluctant as ever to regulate - unless absolutely forced to, by a Royal Commission on Pike River, for example.
I am assuming that is why it has failed to respond to repeated calls to regulate the sunbed industry, and has left it to one of its backbench MPs, Dr Paul Hutchison, to draw up a private member's bill.
I applaud Dr Hutchison for his initiative. But if the industry needs regulation, as he claims, why doesn't his government simply get on with it?
Why wait for a private member's bill that might never be selected from the ballot, and which, even if it was, could take two or three years to get through Parliament?
This is especially the case when you consider that failure to regulate the industry for another two or three years could result in thousands of New Zealanders - especially young teenage girls - being exposed to a significantly increased risk of skin cancer and melanoma.
This may sound melodramatic, but it's true. The evidence linking the use of sun-beds to increased risk of skin cancer and melanoma has been piling up.
Three years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer included the ultraviolet radiation from sunbeds among its highest-risk cancer-causing agents (along with asbestos, tobacco and arsenic).
It says the use of sunbeds increases the risk of melanoma by 20 per cent. If sun-bed use starts before age 30, the risk increases by 75 per cent.
The agency has called on all governments to regulate sunbed use -and many have, including Scotland, England, Wales, Brazil, France, Sweden and some Australian states.
Yet in New Zealand these machines (and there are thousands of them, in gyms, hairdressing salons, tanning clinics and people's homes) are completely unregulated. There is no limit on the amount of ultraviolet radiation that can be used, and no limit around maximum exposure times. There is no standard training for operators, and many unqualified staff operate these machines.
Sure, there is a voluntary standard stating that no-one with pale skin or who is under 18 should use them. But successive surveys by Consumer New Zealand have found the standard is being widely flouted in the industry.
So what will it take for the government to step in and regulate the sunbed industry, and make the voluntary standard mandatory?
New Zealand has the highest melanoma rates in the world, and about 300 New Zealanders die each year from malignant melanoma.
Self-regulation has manifestly failed, and the continued, unregulated use of sunbeds poses a serious threat to public health. Hundreds of young women are using them, oblivious to the risks. One woman confided in a recent blog that she was addicted to sunbeds, and had used them every second day for several years, before she realised the risks they posed.
So, instead of sitting around waiting for a private member's bill to be drawn from the ballot, surely it's time for the Government to overcome its aversion to regulation, and regulate immediately.
Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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