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Blatant conflict of interest in melanoma study

27th May 2010


Blatant conflict of interest in melanoma study, say pro-sunbed indoor tanning lobby groups

A University of Minnesota advocacy group may have "reverse-engineered" a study to bolster its own pre-existing anti-indoor tanning crusade, failing to properly cite the significance of conflicting data within its own paper, downplaying confounding data that opposed its conclusions and failing to disclose the conflict-of-interest of its own anti-tanning advocacy efforts.

"This study was designed and executed by an advocate, not a neutral party, and the advocate failed to properly disclose that she is not a neutral party," said Joseph Levy, vice president of International Smart Tan Network, the educational institute for the North American indoor tanning community. "That conflict of interest clouds some of the irregularities reported in the paper."

Dr. DeAnn Lazovich, lead author of "Indoor Tanning and Risk of Melanoma: A Case-Control Study in a Highly Exposed Population," set for publication in the June issue of American Association for Cancer Research, failed to disclose in the paper that she is part of a University of Minnesota group that initiated programs to discourage indoor tanning use three years before designing and engaging in data collection for this study. Those interactions may themselves have tainted subjects and controls used in the study. (

The International Smart Tan Network has revealed that The University of Minnesota group engaged in deceptive practices in 2001 when, using a National Cancer Institute grant, it developed a bogus indoor tanning training program in order to obtain data from indoor tanning facilities for future studies. According to reports, the Minnesota group told salons they were attempting to help operators lower their risks, but the University of Minnesota refers to the same grant on its web site as an effort to reduce indoor tanning usage.

Tanning advocates in New Zealand also see serious flaws in the study. Tiffany Brown of local sunbed business Get Brown Tanning said today, “There is a clear failure here to disclose a major conflict of interest. This really is quite deceptive research. Once again relative risk factors are used instead of absolute risk- a typical scare-mongering technique of the anti-tanning brigade.

‘In suggesting tanners double their risk of melanoma, the authors ignore the more telling figure that the absolute risk of melanoma is quite low for both tanners and non-tanners. The largest study to date shows that both indoor tanners and non-tanners have less than a 0.3 percent risk of contracting melanoma and most studies show no statistically significant difference between the two groups.”

The nature of "relative risk" figures in melanoma data was the topic of an article published by The Association of Health Care Journalists May 7 by Dr. Ivan Oransky, a Reuters Health editor.

Oransky quotes Dr. Lisa Schwartz, a general internist at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., and co-author of "Know Your Chances," a book that explains health statistics to consumers.

"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 told The Wilmington News Journal's Hiran Ratnayake, who interviewed Schwartz in a recent story on melanoma and indoor tanning.

On reading the study through, Brown found intriguing the authors’ continual mention of previous evidence of the relationship between melanoma skin cancer and sunbed use as being “weak” and inconsistent. “Why then did reputable scientists and researchers previously report there were strong associations in the research? Particularly, this new study does not confirm the often-commented conclusion made by the IARC report that risk of melanoma sky-rockets when tanning beds are first used under the age of 35.” The authors of the study state "With at least 29 reports to date, past history of indoor tanning has been only weakly associated with melanoma."

“In fact,” says Brown, “18 of 22 previous studies show no statistically significant association. This new study simply adds to inconsistencies in the total dataset available about any relationship between sunbed use and melanoma skin cancer.”

The International Smart Tan Network point out the study showed individuals who had the most outdoor sun exposure in their lives had a 15 percent lower risk of melanoma when compared to those who had less sun. The paper is actually the latest in a line of studies showing that people who get the most UV exposure outdoors are less likely to contract the disease.

"Despite what the authors in this paper set out to prove, the fact remains that whatever relationship UV exposure has with melanoma is still not understood because paper after paper, including this one, continue to show that people who get more sun exposure have fewer melanomas," said Dr. William Grant, founder of the independent Sunlight, Nutrition and Health Research Center (SUNARC). Grant, an independent advocate for UV exposure as the natural and intended source of vitamin D, published a peer-reviewed meta-analysis this year showing that indoor tanning is not a risk factor for melanoma in individuals with skin that can tan, with UV-related risk isolated only in the fairest-skinned "Skin Type I" subjects.

Brown believes tanning operators with excellent standards of care are uniquely positioned to educate the public about all aspects of ultraviolet light exposure as it relates to skin in a practical way. “We teach the basics of how the skin tans and burns to help our sun-loving clients understand why a ‘less is more’ approach is best. We’ve proven that education with regard to possible benefits of moderate UV exposure within the limits of risk-minimizing tanning behaviour actually serves to reduce the incidence of over-exposure and/or erythema (sunburn). And as this new study proves, that is a positive step in improving public health outcomes.”

Speaking for International Smart Tan Network Joe Levy said, "We think the promotion of this study has more to do with justifying a dinosaur mentality about UV light in an era when vitamin D research is proving that decades of overzealous sun avoidance may have skyrocketed SPF sales, but has caused epidemic-level vitamin D deficiency and great confusion in the world’s population."


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