ETSU researcher receives grant from CDC to study use of private tanning facilities

JOHNSON CITY – A professor in the East Tennessee State University College of Public Health who is widely considered the nation's foremost researcher on indoor tanning has received grant funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention to study the availability and use of private tanning facilities.

Dr. Joel Hillhouse, a professor in the ETSU Department of Community and Behavioral Health, is co-principal investigator with Dr. Sherry Pagoto, a colleague at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The CDC is providing $598,006 to fund their study.

The two universities will divide the study along geographic lines. Hillhouse's research team will investigate the availability and use of tanning beds in rural areas, while Massachusetts researchers will explore their use in urban environments.

Hillhouse's investigations of tanning – particularly that of teens and college students – have received national attention, and his research is also funded by the National Institutes of Health. Indoor tanners who start before age 35 have a 75 percent increased risk of melanoma, which is just one of the data points that has prompted some U.S. states to consider legislating tanning salons.

But there have been no studies on the availability and use of alternatives to traditional salons, Hillhouse said, and he is concerned that regulation of those businesses – while being a step forward for overall public health – could also bear unintended consequences. If states begin requiring salons to require parental permission for tanners under age 18 or ban youth tanning outright, for example, Hillhouse said it could lead to more unsupervised use in places such as apartment complexes, fitness clubs and private residences.

"We want to educate the public about the dangers of indoor tanning, but there's a worry that legislation of tanning salons could drive tanning more ‘underground,' so to speak," Hillhouse said. "There's been little study of this area. We have some data that we've collected during our studies, but it hasn't been published. But I can tell you that there's a distinct difference between the Tri-Cities, which is considered more rural, and the University of Massachusetts, which is more urban."

Unsupervised tanning is more pervasive in rural America, Hillhouse said. Tanning beds are relatively inexpensive – they can be purchased for under $2,000 – so it's within the means of many businesses and homeowners to buy a bed. Hillhouse remembers driving by a bait shop that once modified its sign to note the addition of indoor tanning. And his research assistant, Katie Baker, recounts a childhood friend in Northeast Tennessee who grew up within sight of a homeowner who added a tanning bed in the basement. Neighbors, she said, could use it at their leisure.

"He added a door in the basement for outside access," said Baker, a College of Public Health doctoral candidate. "Whenever someone wanted to use the tanning bed, they just put $5 in a box on the honor system."