Tan-free prom campaign seeks student support

Some Canadian high school students are pledging to skip the prom tanning ritual.
Jersey Shore characters like Snookie, played by Nicole Polizzi, give the false impression that a tanned look is healthy. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

Some Canadian high school students are pledging to skip the prom tanning ritual.

A handful of high schools in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island are supporting the Canadian Cancer Society's tan-free movement for proms, graduation and summer break.

"I don't want to lose anybody in my grad class because of skin cancer, because of tanning beds especially, something that is so preventable," said Alicia Silliker, a student organizer of the Plan Not to Tan campaign at P.E.I.'s Kensington Intermediate Senior High School.

The campaign is driven by the facts: melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer and the second most common cancer in women under the age of 30.

When public health Prof. DeAnn Lazovich at the University of Minnesota compared people who had melanoma with those who did not, she found those who used indoor tanning beds were 74 per cent more likely to develop the skin cancer.

"I really think young girls need to realize that this is something that could happen to them in the not-too-distant future," Lazovich said.

"My message is to be happy in the skin you're in. That's the healthy and most attractive state that you can be in."

Studies increasingly point to an increased risk from tanning beds, particularly for young people, said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical officer of health with Vancouver Coastal Health. 

"The World Health Organization has declared tanning beds a type one carcinogen and that's the highest level of carcinogens equivalent to tobacco, arsenic," Daly said.

But the no-tan health campaign faces powerful competition from teen magazines and characters on popular TV shows, many of whom sport an orangey tinge.

"All the different shows like Jersey Shore, they really advertise like how tanned skin just looks so much better than your pale skin," said Amy Marchbank in Kensington, P.E.I.

It is a challenge to compete with those messages, acknowledged Carolyn Bourassa of the Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry and Prescott-Russell branch of the Canadian Cancer Society in Cornwall, Ont., who visited students.

"You look in magazines, you watch TV shows and the tanned look is the look that appears to be healthy and appears to be glamorous … so we have to change the mindset that it's not healthy, it's dangerous," said Bourassa, who sent out campaign materials to high schools in the area.

The cancer society hopes more schools will sign on to the campaign next year.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe and Heather Evans