A STUDY THAT SHINES LIGHT ON THE GULLIBLE

By Gary Lipman 42 DECEMBER 2011 | i s l a n d s u n t i m e s . c o m Column | UK View

Over the years, I have developed a thick skin (no pun intended) when it comes to media coverage of sunbeds. Our tabloid press has undoubtedly played a large part in this, although our quality media has also had its part to play.

Good news stories are hard to come by in the media. Indeed, I heard a very interesting radio interview recently, during which Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy during his time as Prime Minister, discussed his view of the British media. He explained how the 24/7 nature of the media had shifted the appetite of viewers, readers and listeners. Whereas, in years gone by, for every three “bad” stories there was one “good” one, today the statistic is 18/1! Given the current economic gloom pervading all corridors of society, I certainly think the media is missing a trick in not adjusting these odds to help raise the nation’s spirits. I am sure the same could be said for the U.S.

Another alarming fact is the media’s apparent inability to question the validity of information provided by certain elements of our society. In this context, tanning beds have had their reputation at the mercy of Joe Public seeking their 15-minutes of fame with stories that simply cannot be substantiated, as well as members of the medical and scientific communities looking to equally boost their profile and perhaps raise awareness of “issues” that would certainly suit some sponsors of their anti-tanning research.

Could it be that the pernicious culture of spin and deception, which has ruined our belief in politicians, has now infected the world of science? A point in case was a recent study by Professor Antony Young, a researcher at King’s College London, which had looked into the effect of UVA on the skin. The abstract of the study gave no reference at all to tanning beds, yet the headline in one of our leading newspapers read “New Sunbed Alert: UV Rays Penetrate Far Deeper into the Skin than Previously Thought” Professor Young was later quoted in the report saying, “Tanning salons still tend to claim that UVA is safe but that’s nonsense.”

There is no doubt that Professor Young had used tanning beds as a hook to gain media attention for this study. And clearly his approach worked!

I was also interviewed by the journalist who wrote the piece and even she agreed it was odd that there was no mention of tanning beds in the study’s abstract, yet Professor Young had introduced the tanning bed reference when she interviewed him. I have do doubt his comments encouraged the negative tanning bed headline and the inaccurate tanning bed statistics (regularly used by the media) that peppered the rest of the story.

This story gained quite widespread coverage, particularly on the Internet yet, in my opinion, it was such a poor piece of research:

1. It had a total sample of just 12 individuals and the “research programme” lasted a total of just 62 hours!

2. The total sample of 12 people were all Skin Type 1 – i.e. at highest risk of photodamage. So, how relevant or appropriate is it, therefore, to connect the limited researching findings to Skin Types 2-6 (i.e. the majority of the population)?

3. Those with Skin Type 1 are not allowed to use tanning beds nor should they sunbathe, as they will not tan.

4. The findings of the study showed that in all cases, any DNA changes caused by the UVA exposure disappeared after 48 hours – i.e. the body repaired itself.

5. A number of recent studies have shown that tanning reduces the risk of melanoma.

And if this wasn’t enough to challenge the efficacy of the research, the story quoted Professor Young as claiming “people do not put on nearly enough lotion [SPF]”. On checking the research paper, it declared that one of the funders of this research was the British Skin Foundation, which has SPF manufacturers amongst their list of sponsors. Anyone think there’s a conflict of interest?