JOHNSON CITY – A researcher with East Tennessee State
University’s College of Public Health has received a $2.7
million grant from the National Institutes of Health for his
innovative strategy aimed at curbing indoor tanning use among
teens. This is the largest federal grant in the history of the
College of Public Health.
Dr. Joel Hillhouse, a professor with the ETSU Department of
Community Health, is the study’s principal investigator and
already a national authority on interventions designed to lower
skin cancer risk through reducing indoor tanning. Hillhouse’s
research team at ETSU will work with colleagues at Penn State
University to educate teens through the Internet and social media.
Hillhouse’s work is driven by research that shows the risk
of melanoma skyrockets for those who use indoor tanning before they
turn 30. While the cancer risk increases, the acknowledgment of the
danger does not.
“Indoor tanning can cause cancer – we know
that,” said Hillhouse, a clinical psychologist. “But
young people in particular ignore the message about cancer, because
they think it’s too far in the future. They’re not
thinking about their own mortality.”
What many do think about, Hillhouse said, is their appearance.
So the research team doesn’t focus on the cancer risks
related to indoor tanning, but the potential risk to their
appearance – mainly in the form of prematurely wrinkled skin.
Vanity can be a powerful motivator for the young, Hillhouse said.
“We’ll be reaching out to teens on what resonates with them, and at this age it’s appearance,” Hillhouse said. “You have to communicate with them through the right channels, too, and that means connecting through the Web. We’ll also be using Facebook and Twitter.”
The grant falls under NIH’s R-01 classification. Dr.
Robert Pack, the College of Public Health’s associate dean
for academic affairs, said that research must tie directly to
NIH’s mission to compete for R-01 funding.
In addition to funding Web and social media
development, the NIH grant will also support additional positions
for researchers and staff in the College of Public Health.
“NIH’s funding for this project says a lot about the respect for Professor Hillhouse’s work in this field,” Pack said. “We expect that the work done here at ETSU will influence teenagers to make better, more informed choices, which would improve public health overall.”
Hillhouse has published previous research that shores up his
approach of changing tanning behaviors through a focus on
appearance. The May 2010 issue of
Archives of Dermatology, a journal of the American Medical
Association, published the results of a similar study by Hillhouse
that focused on female college students.
The NIH project will be centered on an extensive, interactive Web site geared toward female high school students. A combination of results from multiple studies has shown that the risk of melanoma increases by 75 percent for those who initiate indoor tanning before age 30.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer – the World Health Organization’s source for information on cancer – offers a dim view, too. The agency has assigned indoor tanning to its highest cancer risk category, “carcinogenic to humans.” Some other risk factors in that category include asbestos, tobacco, arsenic and mustard gas.
Hillhouse is sympathetic to young people who choose to tan,
because he understands appearance can be a significant component of
overall self-esteem. He’s not unsympathetic to the indoor
tanning industry, either. He cites spray-on tanning as a preferable
option to tanning beds.
“I’m not trying to shut down the tanning industry,” Hillhouse said, “but indoor tanning can cause cancer. I’d like to see the industry put more energy into marketing spray tanning as a safer option that can still give people the appearance they want.”