Before moving into a dorm as a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington, Natalie Muoio had never been to a tanning salon. But when the women on her floor headed out en masse to a nearby salon, she joined in happily, she recalls.
Baking in the ultraviolet light of a sunbed — a practice strongly linked with skin cancer — became “kind of like a hobby,” says Muoio, 23, now of Morristown, N.J.
It was a hobby Muoio and her friends could pay for conveniently, with their university-issued debit cards. Muoio says she paid in another way. She blames indoor and outdoor tanning for the skin cancer she developed just before her 20th birthday.
Despite years of complaints by health advocates, Indiana University still lists indoor tanning salons among merchants in its debit card program. The cards typically are funded by parents and used to buy everything from books to snacks. Card programs at the University of Alabama, the University of Texas Austin and some other schools also include tanning salons.
And the ties between colleges and tanning businesses don’t stop there.
Attending a football game at the University of Louisville? You might park in the Sun Tan City Bronze Lot, named after a tanning salon chain that contributed $3 million to expand the stadium.
It’s not surprising that tanning salons cluster near college campuses. Their most devoted customers are young adults ages 18 to 25, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly one third of young white women are indoor tanners, the agency says.
But some health advocates say it is surprising that many colleges maintain ties with tanning businesses. Research — disputed by the tanning industry — links the light from tanning beds to 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year, CDC says. The risks include melanoma, a deadly form of the disease. People who tan often and early in life appear most at risk. (Spray tans, offered at many salons, do not carry the same risks.)
Many colleges “just don’t seem to realize the importance of the issue,” says Sherry Pagoto, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “They don’t see it like they would see tobacco.”
In a 2014 study, Pagoto found that 12% of top-ranked colleges had on-campus tanning beds, 15% referred students to off-campus housing with tanning beds and 14% listed tanning salons in debit-card programs.
Some things have changed. Arizona State University has removed tanning beds, according to the university. Michigan State University, Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, Clemson University and some other colleges have dropped salons from debit card programs, says Robert Dellavalle, a professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado.
He and Pagota are co-chairs of a campaign to get colleges to adopt anti-tanning policies and to educate students about indoor tanning risks. Those who qualify can earn the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention's Tan-Free Skin Smart Campus Award. So far, just East Tennessee State University has earned the award.
Donna Helm Regen, 69, of Allen, Texas, wants all colleges to ban tanning links. Her daughter, Jaime Regen Rea, was diagnosed with melanoma as a 20-year-old college student with a heavy tanning-bed habit. When Jaime died from the disease at 29, Regen became the “tanning industry’s worst nightmare,” she says at a Facebook page devoted to her daughter’s memory.
Regen devotes another page to listing colleges doing a “good,” “bad,” or “ugly” job of discouraging indoor tanning. “You think that colleges are going to protect your kids and teach them healthy habits,” she says.
Here’s what some colleges say:
* Student leaders at the University of Texas Austin were asked if they wanted tanning salons on the Bevo Bucks card program, despite health risks, and they said they wanted "the right to choose," says Mylon Kirksy, director of residence life. "They didn’t think it was fair to say which vendors were healthy enough." Campus health educators urge students not to tan, and a 2015 survey showed outdoor tanning is much more common than indoor tanning (35% vs 4.5%), says Jessica Wagner, manager of health promotion.
• The University of Louisville does not promote tanning, says Kenny Klein, senior associate athletic director for media relations. Sun Tan City, the stadium benefactor, “has multiple services that do not include the use of tanning beds, and meets every established regulation for their business,” he says.
• The tanning salon adjacent to student apartments at Christopher Newport University is on property owned and managed by the Christopher Newport University Real Estate Foundation, not the university itself, says Tom Kramer, the university’s director of external relations. "Tanning is not promoted by the university," he says.
* The University of Alabama is reviewing vendors in its debit card program, as it does on a regular basis, says Chris Bryant, interim director of media relations.
• Indiana University Bloomington declined comment on its debit card program.
Jeff Mills, owner of Bloomington's Sol Spa, says about 75% of his tanning customers are students, but only a few pay with the university debit card. He adds that his salon closest to campus closed in June — a victim, he says, of a federal "tanning tax," adopted as part of Obamacare.
Of note: many states ban indoor tanning bed use by teens under age 18 and the Food and Drug Administration has proposed a nationwide ban for minors. But that would not affect most college students.