Burning question of sunbed safety

02:12, Jun 13 2014
Jessie Anitoni
OPERATION TIME: Jessie Anitoni during treatment to get melanomas removed in 2012.

She was a "typical teenager" who liked to tan up during her breaks on a sunbed while working part time at a hairdressing salon.

But Jessie Anitoni, now 26, wishes she hadn't.

She's had multiple surgeries for melanomas on her neck, leg and arm and is convinced the sunbed sessions are to blame.

Jessie Anitoni
HEALTHY MUM: Jessie Anitoni with her son Rubin.

Anitoni now lives in Australia where sunbeds will be banned by the end of the year and she wants them banished here too.

"Sunbeds are a death sentence," she says.

"Every session is like nailing another nail in the coffin."


Jessie Anitoni
BADLY SCARRED: Jessie Anitoni after getting a melanoma removed in 2012. She is convinced it was caused by sunbed use.

Anitoni started tanning as a 16 year-old in Palmerston North. 

She moved to Brisbane in 2009 and was diagnosed with the first of several melanomas soon after.

The melanoma was removed from the back of her left knee and 18 months later she had another taken from her arm.

Then, in 2012, she had a skin tag removed from her neck. Tests showed it was metastatic - meaning it had spread to other parts of the body.

"Scans showed it had spread quite rapidly, so I was rushed into theatre the next morning," she says.

"I spent 10 hours in the operating theatre to have it all removed."

There are no regulations governing sunbed use in New Zealand. There is a voluntary industry standard stating no-one with pale skin or aged under 18 should use them, but the Ministry of Health admits many operators do not follow the guidelines.

That is all about to change and Auckland Council is leading the charge in regulating solariums.

From July 1, all Auckland commercial services that risk breaking, burning or piercing the skin will have to be licensed.

Sunbed operators will have to comply with a new code of practice that includes banning use among those under 18.

There are 24 licensed sunbed operators in Auckland. Ten more will need to be licensed under the new bylaw, council environmental health manager Mervyn Chetty says.

They will be checked annually by the council's environment and health officers.

The Cancer Society and Melanoma Foundation want other councils to follow Auckland's lead. The organisations are part of the sunbed action group to regulate and ban unsupervised sunbeds and their use by those under 18.

A parliamentary bill that would have seen that happen nationwide has stalled.

Melanoma Foundation chief executive Linda Flay says the delay is disappointing.

"People don't realise the harm that's being done by them.

"They're really dangerous," she says.

Flay says Auckland Council's new bylaw is "fantastic".

"It's something we can do to minimise harm.

"It'd be great to see the rest of the country follow."

Cancer Society spokeswoman Penny White says people should avoid any type of artificial UV radiation tanning device for cosmetic purposes.

"There's been a clear link between skin cancer and solariums," White says.

"We wouldn't advise people to use them.

"There are risks associated with solarium use and people should be aware of these." New Zealand and Australia have among the highest melanoma rates in the world.

But some say banning sunbeds is not the answer.

Dr Ron Baker from Molecheck Remuera says most of his patients have sun damage caused by sunshine.

He agrees with the ban for under-18s but says for the rest of us "education is the key". "If somebody wants to use sunbeds for a brief period of time, like before a holiday to avoid being burned by the sun, they should be able to," he says.

"It's excessive use of sunbeds for tanning that's the problem.

"Excessive sunbed usage will increase your risk of skin cancer just like excessive sunburning.

"But what are you going to do, regulate how often people go to the beach?"

Indoor Tanning Association of New Zealand spokeswoman Kirsty Ethynes welcomes the new bylaw but also does not agree with a complete ban.

"The issue is not sunbeds, the issue is overexposure.

"We've got a lot of people with vitamin D insufficiencies in New Zealand."

It should be about choice for people, Ethynes says.

"They should be putting money and time into educating people about the dangers and benefits of sun and sunbeds.

"It's about doing it responsibly."

Consumer NZ also says sunbeds should be regulated and current standards made mandatory. Its most recent survey found two-thirds of sunbed operators did not meet safety requirements.

Matt Adams has been in the sunbed tanning business for 14 years and has owned Sunset Tan in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden for seven.

"I've been pushing for the voluntary standards to be made mandatory for years," he says.

"It won't really affect anything because most respectable tanning salons already administer it."

Adams does not see a complete ban happening and says indoor tanning is not dangerous.

"Allowing your body to be subject to anything in extreme quantities will cause harm."

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