By Alan Mozes
MONDAY, Dec. 23, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Widely condemned for driving up skin cancer risk, tanning beds remain common in that shrine to healthy living: gyms.
That's the finding from a study of tanning beds in three of America's six largest gym chains: Anytime Fitness, Planet Fitness and Gold's Gym.
Collectively, they operate more than 1,900 branches in the areas included in the study (33 states and Washington, D.C.). Those branches -- representing about 40% of the chains' nationwide business -- were the focus.
"Gyms appear to be the new tanning salons," said Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist and professor of allied health sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who led the study.
Between June 2018 and February 2019, her team reached 1,700 gyms in the three chains by phone. More than three-quarters said they offered on-site tanning.
"We found that 78% of the gyms had tanning beds (on average)," Pagoto said. Branches in the Midwest were most likely to have them.
Almost all (99%) Planet Fitness gyms contacted said they offered customers access to tanning beds. Beds were also available in 65% of Anytime Fitness gyms and in 41% of Gold's gyms. (The team reached almost all Planet Fitness and Gold's branches; about 20% of Anytime facilities were unreachable.)
"That is a lot of tanning beds," Pagoto said.
Of the 4,660 tanning beds across the three chains, 3,736 belonged to Planet Fitness and nearly 800 to Anytime. Gold's branches accounted for 20% of the beds, the findings showed.
In a statement, Gold's said it removed tanning beds from all of its company-owned locations in 2016. "We currently have 123 company-owned gyms, none of which have tanning beds," the statement said. "Some of our U.S. franchisees who independently own and operate their gyms make their own decisions about whether to offer tanning."
Neither Planet Fitness nor Anytime Fitness responded to requests for comment.
Dr. Deborah Sarnoff, president of The Skin Cancer Foundation, responded strongly to the findings.
"To me, it's an oxymoron to go to a gym or health club to be healthy, only to then use a tanning bed and severely damage your skin," Sarnoff said. "There is no such thing as a 'healthy' tan. If you have one, it's a sign you've sustained skin cell damage."
Even though an estimated 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States are attributed to tanning beds every year, many people -- especially those who are physically active -- still prize a tan, she noted.
"Many still believe skin cancer can never happen to them, especially if they are young and otherwise healthy," Sarnoff said, calling that a "dangerous misconception." Those who use a tanning bed before age 35 boost their melanoma risk by 75%.
The researchers said the study was limited by its focus on only three of the six largest gym chains. Of the others, only SNAP Fitness has tanning beds. LA Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness have none, according to their corporate offices.
Pagoto attributed the continued availability of tanning beds at many gyms to competition and customer demand.
"They know this is a hot selling point for their patrons," Pagoto said, adding: "Exercise and tanning have one thing in common. They are both motivated by the desire to improve physical appearance. Gyms want to be one-stop shopping for their patrons."
But when the amenities they offer are known to cause cancer, "we have to ask, 'does this gym really prioritize my health?'" she said.
Pagoto noted that the 10% "tanning tax" put in place with the adoption of the Affordable Care Act only applies to businesses that charge per tanning-bed session. With "unlimited tanning" included in many gym memberships, some people who would never spend money on tanning otherwise might start, she said.
Regardless, Sarnoff argued that "we cannot rely on legislation alone to end dangerous behaviors."
She pointed out that "people will always find loopholes as long as there is a desire to use indoor tanning devices. That's why education and awareness are so important. Once people understand the dangers and consequences of tanning, they're more likely to make healthier choices."
The study was published online Dec. 20 in JAMA Network Open. The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute funded the study.