Byline: Fiona MacRae Science Reporter
SUNBEDS are as great a cancer threat as cigarettes, global health chiefs have declared.
The dangers of 'binge tanning' are so significant that sunbeds have been placed on the World Health Organisation's list of the most cancer-causing substances and habits, alongside arsenic and asbestos.
Before this, sunbeds and sunlamps had been classified as 'probably carcinogenic', placing them one rung below the most dangerous products.
After reviewing the latest evidence, WHO scientists decided there was no doubt that ultra-violet radiation could trigger the disease.
This means that sunbathing is also classified as high risk. But the intensity of the UV light emitted by sunbeds means a 20-minute visit to some booths is the equivalent to spending an entire day on the beach.
The data will be made available to the Government, including the Department of Health which is facing increasing pressure to clamp down on sunbed use.
Critics say the Government has so far failed to take any meaningful action to regulate the hundreds of tanning salons around the country.
An estimated three million Britons regularly use sunbeds, with children as young as 11 using the equipment to achieve tans like those of celebrity idols.
Government guidelines advise against use by youngsters but many sunbeds are in unstaffed, coin-operated booths, meaning there is no screening of customers.
Sunbeds are also increasingly powerful, with the UV output from modern machines ten to 15 times more intense than the midday sun on a Mediterranean beach. Announcing the reclassification in the Lancet Oncology medical journal, the WHO experts warned that the use of sunbeds and lamps was widespread in many developed countries, especially among young women.
The WHO alert comes amid concern about soaring rates of the most deadly form of skin cancer.
Sunbed use is partly blamed for the number of cases of malignant melanoma more than doubling in just 20 years. Some 9,417 men and women in England developed the disease between 1985 and 1987. But by 2004-2006, the figure had risen to 24,356.
Research analysed by the WHO included a large-scale review which concluded that using sunbeds before the age of 30 raises the odds of skin cancer by 75 per cent. Some of the studies also flagged up a convincing link between sunbeds and eye cancer.
Dr Beatrice Secretan, of the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), described the reclassification as 'significant'.
She said: 'It means sunbeds are now up there with such things as cigarettes and alcohol as the most dangerous products to use when it comes to developing cancer.
'What we do now is send this advice to the various regulatory bodies around the world. We hope our message will get across to the owners of these machines as well as the users.' Cancer Research UK said the reclassification reinforced its call for sunbed use to be regulated by law.
Jessica Harris, the charity's health information officer, said: 'The link between sunbeds and skin cancer has been convincingly shown …