By Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters Health) – More than three-quarters of commercial gyms surveyed offered tanning beds, undermining public health warnings about the dangers of indoor tanning, according to a study of three of the largest U.S. gym chains.

Tanning beds are known to increase risk for skin cancers, including deadly melanoma, but there is little information about how common they are in gyms, the study authors write in JAMA Network Open.

Tanning beds have been categorized as a group-1 carcinogen, the same level as tobacco and plutonium, said lead study author Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

“Consumers look to gyms to help them develop a healthy lifestyle,” Pagoto told Reuters Health in an email. By offering tanning beds, gyms are essentially putting a “health halo” on the devices, she said.

Previous research showing a link between physical activity and melanoma risks got Pagoto and her colleagues thinking about the implications of gyms marketing tanning beds to physically active people.

To investigate, they identified three of the six largest national gym chains – Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness and Gold’s Gym – and contacted locations in all five U.S. regions.

“We phoned 1,927 gyms from these chains across 33 states to find out if they offered tanning beds. We found 78% of them had the facility,” Pagoto said.

In all, the authors found 4,660 tanning beds at 1,347 gyms.

“That is a lot of tanning beds! This is surprising because our sense was the tanning industry was on the decline, but it appears it has just moved into novel environments, with gyms being the most common,” Pagoto said.

This study highlights a lesser-known aspect of the Affordable Care Act’s indoor tanning excise tax, dermatologist Dr. Sara Hogan told Reuters Health.

“In the 10 years since the act was passed, thousands of indoor tanning bed salons across the country closed, decreasing access to indoor tanning and its harmful sequela,” said Hogan, of the University of California, Los Angeles and the David Geffen School of Medicine, who was not part of the study.

However, the indoor tanning tax is not applied if it is offered through a qualified physical fitness facility.

“Such facilities are exempt from the tax as long as their main focus is promoting exercise and physical fitness, indoor tanning is an insubstantial part of the business, members are not charged per tanning visit, and the service is not exclusively advertised,” she explained. 

While the study looked at only three gym chains in 33 states and the District of Columbia, Hogan said the findings were troubling because the majority of gyms surveyed housed tanning beds.

“This access to indoor tanning is broader than the medical and public health community may think.”

The authors acknowledge that their focus on just three chains is a limitation of the study. Even so, their results suggest that current legislation may not be sufficient to regulate tanning services, they conclude.

The good news, Pagoto said, is that some gym chains do not include tanning beds in their business model, giving consumers a choice.

“It would be outrageous if gyms installed cigarette machines. It is just as outrageous that they have tanning beds,” she added.

SOURCE: JAMA Network Open, online December 20, 2019.