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Indoor Tanning Linked to Melanoma

Indoor Tanning Linked to Melanoma

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Lots of coverage today on a  new study linking frequent indoor tanning with a higher risk of getting melanoma, one of the more deadly types of skin cancer. But why aren't more reporters also writing about the absolute risks? NPR's Patti Neighmond reports:

New research finds people who frequent tanning salons significantly increase their risk of getting melanoma, one of the most aggressive and deadliest cancers.

Cancer epidemiologist and lead researcher DeAnn Lazovich of the University of Minnesota says melanoma risk was 74 percent higher for the people who tanned indoors compared with those who didn't...

...She found the risk increased for people who reported more than 10 years of use, more than 100 tanning lifetime sessions or spent more than 50 hours in tanning beds.

In her radio report (but not her blog post, strangely), Neighmond mentioned that the actual risk of contracting melanoma was fairly low, an important fact many other stories about the study did omitted. To learn more about accurately reporting in risk, check out Antidote blogger William Heisel's excellent recent post on absolute risk vs. relative risk.

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Picture of Ivan Oransky

Good point, Barbara. I covered this in a guest post at AHCJ's Covering Health blog earlier this month, picking up on the work of Hiran Ratnayake of The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal. He was writing about an earlier study often cited by the WHO:

But as Ratnayake noted, that study “found that less than three-tenths of 1 percent who tanned frequently developed melanoma while less than two-tenths of 1 percent who didn’t tan developed melanoma.” That’s actually about a 55 percent increase, but when the study was pooled with others, the average was a 75 percent increase. In other words, even if the risk of melanoma was 75 percent greater than two-tenths of one percent, rather than 55 percent greater, it would still be far below one percent.

For some perspective on those numbers, Ratnayake interviewed Lisa Schwartz, M.D.,M.S., whose work on statistical problems in studies and media reports is probably familiar to many AHCJ members. “Melanoma is pretty rare and almost all the time, the way to make it look scarier is to present the relative change, the 75 percent increase, rather than to point out that it is still really rare,” Schwartz, a general internist at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., told him.

More about absolute and relative risk in the post:


Ivan Oransky

Executive Editor, Reuters Health

AHCJ Treasurer

Blogger, Embargo Watch


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