03/20/2012 12:34 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

B.C. banning children and teens from tanning beds, citing cancer risk

VANCOUVER - Kathy Barnard was just 15 when she and her sister picked up a do-it-yourself tanning light from a local department store in Powell River, B.C., brought it home and baked under it for more than an hour.

By the time she was finished, Barnard was severely burned but still hooked on getting tanned. It was the beginning of an obsession with tanning that lasted until just before she was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago.

"I was a huge sun worshiper — if I wasn't outside doing sports, I was laying in the sun, and then I reverted to a tanning salon in the winter," Barnard, 57, said Tuesday, as the British Columbia government pledged to ban children and teens from tanning beds.

"Nobody talked about skin cancer," she said. "It was the cancer of older people."

British Columbia plans to introduce regulations in the fall that will ban people under 18 from using indoor tanning equipment, joining the province of Nova Scotia and Victoria, B.C., which passed a bylaw against the practice last year.

B.C. is also considering recommendations to require training and licensing for tanning salon operators and have them display cancer warning labels.

Barnard was diagnosed with melanoma in 2003 and has survived several serious relapses.

"When we're under 18, we think we're invincible," said Barnard, who now lives in Vancouver and runs the Save Your Skin Foundation. "We could save another life here."

Last year, the B.C. government struck a working group to examine possible regulations for the tanning industry.

The group included representatives from the medical community, B.C. municipalities and the tanning industry. The only participant not to endorse a total ban on youth tanning was the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, an industry group, which instead recommended parental consent.

Health Minister Mike de Jong said the risk of cancer associated with tanning is too great to allow children to use the devices.

"We believe the evidence warrants this step," said de Jong.

"We believe that every time we take action collectively and individually, it represents a benefit to families, to individuals and to society as a whole, which bears the brunt of the costs associated with treating those cancers."

De Jong said teens can obtain a prescription in cases where UV light is required for medical reasons, such as to treat psoriasis.

The working group report cites research by the World Health Organization, which classifies UV from tanning beds as a proven carcinogen. The WHO says the risk of melanoma increases by 75 per cent when artificial tanning begins before the age of 35.

Advocates such as the Canadian Cancer Society have been calling on governments to ban youth from using tanning beds, but progress has been slow.

Nova Scotia became the first province to institute an outright ban on people under 19 last year.

Other provinces, such as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, have introduced voluntarily guidelines that say youth shouldn't use tanning beds.

Minors are banned from tanning salons in Australia and in some parts of the United States and Europe.

Steven Gilroy of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association insisted the risks have been exaggerated.

Gilroy said when tanning beds are properly maintained and operated, the risk is dramatically reduced. He said the danger is cut even further when people at greater risk, such as those with fairer skin, are removed from the WHO statistics.

He said a better approach would be to regulate the industry to ensure tanning beds are operated by trained staff, exposure limits are placed on youth and that people with higher-risk skin conditions are banned.

"If you have good controls in, you reduce risk," Gilroy said from Kelowna.

"We have been advocating for full professional standards. Nobody wants to do this. They just want to ban it and be done with it."

In the working group's report, the medical participants, including the B.C. Cancer Agency and the Canadian Dermatology Association, reject Gilroy's use of the statistics.

They noted cancer risk is associated with lifetime exposure to UV radiation, which tanning beds increase, and that the true impact of tanning beds, which are still relatively new, may still be years away.

The report argues the cosmetic benefits of indoor tanning do not outweigh the health risks.