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The Associated Press March 25, 2010, 6:17AM ET

FDA weighs steps to curb tanning bed cancer risks

Government health regulators meet Thursday to consider bolder warnings and stricter regulatory controls for tanning beds, in a bid to reduce cancer risk among the 30 million Americans who use the devices each year.

The Food and Drug Administration has regulated tanning beds for more than 20 years, but a recent report tying the devices to skin cancer has prompted a call for tougher rules.

The World Health Organization's cancer division concluded last summer that tanning beds are definite cancer-causers, right alongside the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun. An analysis of numerous studies showed that melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, jumps by 75 percent in people who used tanning beds in their teens and 20s.

The FDA will ask a panel of outside doctors to consider a range of precautionary steps, including changing how sunlamps are regulated.

Currently the machines are regulated as Class I medical devices, a rating used for low-risk products like bandages and tongue depressors. By increasing their classification to Class II, the FDA could require manufacturers to submit information about new tanning machines before they reach the market.

Other options under consideration include:

--Requiring customers to sign a form that explains tanning bed risks.

--Restrictions on minors using tanning beds, including mandatory parental consent, similar to some state and local requirements.

The FDA is not required to follow the advice of its expert panels, though it often does.

Panelists will also hear from representatives for the indoor tanning industry, a roughly $5-billion sector primarily composed of small businesses. The sector is already expected to feel pain from a 10 percent tax on artificial tanning included in the health overhaul plan that became law earlier this week.

The Indoor Tanning Association says the evidence linking suntan lamps to cancer is far from definitive.

"The science is all over the place," said executive director John Overstreet. "And for us that's good news because the FDA can't take the actions they're talking about when the jury is still out."

Overstreet's group represents about 18,000 tanning operations along with manufacturers, including Indianapolis-based ETS Tan and Heartland Tanning Supply of Lee's Summit, Mo.

The tanning industry also argues that sunlamps can be an important source of Vitamin D, which is needed for healthy blood and strong bones.

But the FDA dispensed with that argument in briefing documents posted earlier this week, saying similar benefits can be had from dietary supplements.

"No adequate evidence has been submitted to FDA by tanning bed manufacturers in support of any potential health benefits, not potentially achievable by safer means," states the FDA.

Earlier this year the Federal Trade Commission charged the Indoor Tanning Association with making false claims about the benefits of Vitamin D and the safety of tanning beds. The group has entered a settlement agreement with the government and pulled the ads in question.

Nearly 69,000 U.S. cases of melanoma were diagnosed last year. Also linked to ultraviolet exposure are basal and squamous cell cancer carcinomas, which affect more than 1 million Americans a year. They're usually easily removed but the American Cancer Society counts 2,000 annual deaths.

Fair-skinned people who don't tan easily are at highest risk for skin cancer. Melanoma is particularly linked to sunburns at a young age, though it is usually diagnosed in the 40s and 50s.

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