The dark side of the tanning business: Chris MacDonald

Risk and the rational consumer

 
(Photo: Jonathan Hayward/CP)
(Photo: Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Tanning beds are rapidly joining cigarettes in the “it’s only legal because no one has figured out how to outlaw it” category. But now jurisdictions as varied as Prince Edward Island and Texas, for example, are banning minors from using tanning salons.

Not surprisingly, dermatologists are pleased. Indeed, the Canadian Dermatology Association has issued a release, noting that indoor tanning “causes premature aging and … increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.”

Is this a business that should exist at all? Sure, even a potentially-dangerous product can be used safely if used in suitable moderation. But the question here has to be whether moderation is the norm, and whether customers will know what moderation means.

Protecting minors is the regulatory low-hanging fruit. It’s an easy sell. Tanning beds pose a risk to anyone who uses them, but teens are in particular need of protection. Studies have suggested that younger people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of ultra-violet radiation. Teens, in particular, tend to be both obsessed with appearances and under the sway of a general belief in their own invincibility. And according to the the dermatologists, “tanning before the age of 35 has been associated with a significant increase in the risk of melanoma.”

But beyond the case of minors, shouldn’t we all be free to tan at will? Well, yes and no. Freedom is a good thing, sure. But freedom in the marketplace is predicated on the idea that everyone involved is more or less rational and well-informed. This imposes an obligation on businesspeople to be honest and forthright about risks associated with their products. But tanning salons themselves may be promoting a number of myths that make artificial tanning seem safer than it is. So while people should be free to take risks, that doesn’t automatically imply an unlimited right to sell those risks.

If you’re only still in business because no one has figured out how to make your product illegal, you should probably consider a new line of business.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.


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