Contribution to the Public Health (Sunbeds) Bill 2013: Second Stage (Resumed) (Continued)

February 13th, 2014 - Pat Breen

Deputy Pat Breen: I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Public Health (Sunbeds) Bill 2013. So many people have spoken about this Bill over the past day or so. It is one area where everybody agrees. The purpose of this Bill is to reduce the cancer risk specifically for children by prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 years from using a sunbed. It is very welcome legislation and all parties support it. I compliment the Minister for Health and the Minister of State with responsibility for primary care, who is in the House this afternoon, on taking this action and for introducing regulation in this area, particularly given the conclusive evidence linking sunbed use to skin cancer.

Next month is very important for the Irish Cancer Society when it operates Daffodil Day. According to the Irish Cancer Society, skin cancer is the commonest cancer in Ireland and in 2010, 9,450 people were diagnosed with the disease and, of these, 986 were diagnosed with melanoma, which is the deadliest of all skin cancers, with 158 people dying from skin cancer in 2011. Other countries have similar figures and there is compelling international evidence that there is a link between the increased incidence of skin cancer and the use of sunbeds and that the risks are even greater for younger people. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified the use of sunbeds as a class 1 carcinogen because when one uses a sunbed, one is exposed to both UVA and UVB rays which damage one’s skin and lead to cancer. The World Health Organization agrees with these conclusions and has described the use of sunbeds as one of the most dangerous cancer-causing habits, describing sunbeds as being as lethal as cigarettes. The fact they are as lethal as cigarettes speaks for itself.

In spite of all this research and warnings, the use of sunbeds in this country has grown, which is a bit like cigarette smoking as well. The Irish Cancer Society report stated that around 140,000 people regularly use sunbeds. The most worrying statistic I read recently is that 20% of these are aged between 15 and 34 years of age, so that in 2010, 28,000 young people under the age of 25 used sunbeds here.
Given our weather patterns, it is not surprising that Irish people have been attracted to using sunbeds, and their popularity may be another effect of the Celtic tiger. That so many young people have been using sunbeds is very alarming and if action is not taken to address this, we will see our skin cancer rates spiral out of control in a few years’ time. In a survey of six single-sex Cork city schools carried out in November 2011, 71% of respondents reported that they first used a sunbed before the age of 14 while the youngest reported age was ten years. Children as young as seven and eight are being exposed to sunbeds because it has become common practice for children to have a number of sunbed sessions ahead of their first holy communion. Their parents have a huge responsibility because they do not realise the dangers to which they are exposing their children. It is obvious the message is not getting out about exposure to these sunbeds and is not getting through to people, especially when one sees parents letting their children use sunbeds. This is why I welcome the legislation that will ban those under 18 years of age from using them. The UK, Germany, France and several Australian and Canadian states have introduced similar bans because the evidence is clear in terms of the link between sunbed use and skin cancer.

The fact that up until now, sun tanning salons were unregulated and coin-operated and unsupervised sunbeds were in existence made access easier for young people The question of how this ban will be enforced is very important because there is no doubt that some young people under the age of 18 will try to break the ban. While I understand that salons will have to display signs advertising the fact that those under 18 cannot use sunbeds, I suggest that the regulations should include the requirement for proof of age in cases where the salon owner is not sure of a person’s age.

As well as banning the use of sunbeds for children under 18 years of age, a focused educational programme should be introduced in our schools to highlight the devastating effects of using sunbeds. Such a programme would be effective in deterring young people from using sunbeds, particularly as they get older. A media campaign including a blitz on social media could also come on stream at the same time, as it would be a great way of connecting with young people, many of whom are on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

The message needs to get out and people need to be fully informed and aware of the consequences and the risks that they are taking when they use sunbeds. In the course of my research for this debate, I read a number of articles about people who have developed cancer as a result of using sunbeds. Their stories are horrific. I am sure that most Deputies have heard of them. I read one story of a 25 year old girl in the UK who was fighting skin cancer after spending 20 minutes per day for eight years on a sunbed. She started going to tanning salons when she was 17 years of age. She described the day the doctor told her that she had cancer as devastating. She stated: “No tan is worth the pain of an operation, scarred skin and the constant feeling of what if while waiting for my results”. In another case in the US, a young 26 year old woman died from a melanoma three years after being diagnosed. She had also been a regular sunbed user.

Making people aware of the risks will have an impact, just as similar campaigns have impacted on smokers and drink drivers. Will the Minister for Health or the Minister of State, Deputy White, who is present, discuss with the Minister for Education and Skills the possibility of introducing an awareness campaign in our schools as soon as possible? A laissez-faire attitude has been adopted towards the use of sunbeds, particularly by users who have continuously ignored the risks in favour of having tans. The onus, therefore, will need to be placed on the salon. It is also important that salons display warning signs advising people of the risks associated with their use and that new protocols be put in place, including training and inspections.

Some sunbed users claim that they are just doing what other sun worshippers are doing while on summer holidays. However, we need to take precautions when sunbathing, given the fact that sunburns have been associated with lasting skin damage. One blistering sunburn in childhood can lead to the development of melanomas later in life. People are always warned about the risks of lying under the midday sun when the chance of sunburn is at its greatest and are encouraged to use sun protection creams.
The risk is even greater in the case of sunbeds, with scientists calculating that a ten-minute session on a sunbed is twice as likely to cause skin cancer as spending the same amount of time in the midday sun in the Mediterranean. We cannot ignore this stark statistic.

Having been informed of all the risks, some people will continue using sunbeds. As such, it is important that the equipment they use be fit for purpose. sunbeds produce ultraviolet radiation, which makes it possible to tan. Therefore, the equipment should be maintained to the highest standards. Operators and their staff should be familiar with the correct operations of UV tanning equipment and ongoing health and safety training should be provided to ensure that employees can operate the equipment correctly and are able to provide customers with information about the risks. Staff should be aware of the risks to themselves from working with UV tanning equipment and how to reduce or avoid those risks.

There is also the issue of UV emission levels. The Minister of State has departed, but I would be interested in the Minister’s views on whether the regulations will include a restriction on emission levels. In the UK, regulations introduced in 2009 restrict the emission level to 0.3 W/m2 compliant, which means that a UV emission is guaranteed to be no higher than that of the midday Mediterranean sun. In spite of these regulations, however, a study carried out by Cancer Research UK – indeed, many studies have been carried out – on 402 sunbeds across England in 2010 and 2011 found that nine out of ten sunbeds failed to meet British and European safety standards. It found that the levels of UV radiation emitted by the 400 sunbeds were on average twice as high as the recommended limits. This is an interesting statistic.

It is important that we learn from the experience in other countries so that the regulations being introduced in Ireland provide the best international practice. This legislation is about protecting lives, especially among young people, from the evil that is skin cancer. Benjamin Franklin once stated, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That is true. By avoiding risks such as overexposure to sunbeds and adopting a healthy lifestyle, people can reduce their risk of cancer by up to 50%. For this reason, I support the legislation and trust that it will be enacted as soon as possible.