From Grassroots Outreach to Federal Bills: Tanning is Out

Melanoma skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer for people aged 15 to 29 – and it’s mostly preventable. Research tells us that indoor tanning before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 87 per cent. But despite 10 years of ‘sun safety’ messages, British Columbians’ sun protective behaviours have not changed. Until recently, nearly 30 per cent of young women aged 16 to 24 continued to use tanning equipment. Students told us they were aware of the dangers of tanning, but still did it.

When the Canadian Cancer Society, BC & Yukon, made implementing a tanning bed ban for youth an election issue in 2009, we knew it was going to take more than just an awareness campaign to drive policy change. We realized we needed to engage and empower the right people – youth.

The outreach and empowerment campaign started at a grassroots level. We started by heading into schools and identifying youth ambassadors, students who cared about the issue and wanted to see change. We empowered these students to speak up and model the change to their peers, helping us shift attitudes about beauty and tanning. We also empowered these ambassadors to encourage government to make legislative changes.

We conducted focus groups with high school students and out of this our Tan-Free grad challenge was born. We worked with students to create toolkits on how to conduct a tan-free grad challenge and took the kits province-wide, recruiting ambassadors at schools across B.C. In 2011, more than 3,300 students committed to being tan-free. This year, 42 schools across the province and close to 9,000 students took the pledge.

To support their efforts, we invited youth to join us online, connecting and sharing their comments about the issue and pledges via the Tanning Is Out Facebook page created for them. We launched a website and blog,, which is designed for youth with facts clearly identified. We created comical and informative videos that are easily shared over social media channels. Our outreach efforts were designed to be accessible, visually appealing and sharable.

As the popularity of Tan-Free graduation challenges grew, so too did awareness. We pitched local media with stories of the pledges and began connecting MLA’s with youth ambassadors who voiced their concerns about indoor tanning. By January 2011, the Capital Regional District had implemented a bylaw restricting tanning bed usage for youth under 18 and in September 2011, UBCM passed a resolution calling for a province-wide ban. Shortly after, the provincial government created the Provincial Indoor Tanning Working Group, which led to the formal announcement in May 2012 that regulations preventing youth under the age of 18 from using tanning beds would be enacted in B.C. We are confident these regulations will be in place this fall.

Since gaining momentum locally, the initiative has spread across the country. Legislation has passed in Nova Scotia and is proposed for Newfoundland, Quebec and Ontario. There is even a federal Private Member’s Bill (Bill C-386) that has been introduced by James Bezan, which calls for a nationwide ban of indoor tanning for youth under 18.

Making the case for change wasn’t enough. We had to authentically engage and empower our audience – youth – in order to make a difference. We learned that to achieve behavioural change, it takes time and requires a concerted effort to engage the right people and mobilize them for the cause.


Sheila Dong is Manager of Media Relations for the Canadian Cancer Society, BC & Yukon