Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Tang-colored political leaders

I’m not sure what it’s going to take to discredit the presumed attractiveness of tanned skin, but it may help to have a bunch of politicians running around with a ludicrous orange glow. If ridiculing the vanity of people like Sarah Palin and John Kerry doesn’t drain them of their color, it still feels good to throw a dart at such deserving targets.

Whether the tan is a sprayed-on job or the side-effect of real work in the outdoors—which seems highly unlikely—the message it sends is all wrong. A tan is nothing more than damaged skin, and sufficiently cooked by solar radiation, skin cells can become cancerous. At the same time tanning salons are proliferating in the U.S., more people are finally getting the message that too much sun can kill. In a welcome sign of the times, Cosmopolitan magazine has teamed up with the Melanoma Research Foundation to promote “safe sun” among its young female readers. Among this demographic group, melanoma is the second most common form of cancer, partly because of its presumed overexposure to UV radiation. It’s believed by a lot of educated people that a tan makes you look healthier. That’s a conceit I fell for myself in my younger days, with life-changing consequences.

So far, telling young people that frequent tanning is risky doesn’t change behavior much. They have an underdeveloped sense of their own mortality. It may take government action to turn things around. In Australia and New Zealand, where the incidence of melanoma is the highest in the world, tanning “solariums” are on the wane as the combined effect of public education and local regulations have kicked in. Several European countries are also moving ahead in discouraging the use of tanning salons. People who make money from the legal exposure of young people to dangerous levels of UV light are reprehensible. It’s crazy that a health club here in Corvallis (Wow Fitness) promotes the tanning beds it has installed. There is no cancer risk of which I'm aware to having a buff body. The same cannot be said for being bronzed by radiation.

The tanning industry has commercialized skin cancer no less cynically than the tobacco industry did lung cancer. Smoking may no longer be socially acceptable, but it took more than 40 years to get us there. I'm hopeful that the strong link between excessive UV exposure and skin cancer will change our attitudes about tanning far sooner than that, thanks at least partly to the spectacle of the Tang-colored political leaders who keep showing up on TV.

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