Call it a reality check. Call it tough love. Call it anything you like. But hear me loud and clear, because I’m about to say something no one else will:

It’s time for health clubs to distance themselves from the tanning industry.

If tanning is part of your business, now is the time to come up with a transition plan to exit the business — sooner rather than later.

I reach this conclusion reluctantly. I know health clubs have relied on tanning as a profit center for decades. As a health club marketing consultant, my career has been devoted to helping owners — mostly of “Ma and Pa” establishments — find reliable sources of revenue.

But times have changed. And we need to change with them — rather than doubling down on a dying industry.

Here’s the harsh reality: the tanning industry is doomed. Nothing can be done to reverse the downward spiral. 

Changing popular opinion has taken a heavy toll on the industry. And recent regulatory changes are the final nail in the coffin.

The Obamacare  tanning tax of 10% closed hundreds of salons; estimates run as high as 20% of the industry.

That came on top on municipalities and states banning tanning for minors under 18. Since so much of the salons’ business comes from girls between 16 and 18, the ban caused a heavy hit. Tanning is now banned for minors in Chicago, Springfield, and many other municipalities, along with the entire states of Nevada, Oregon,Vermont, California, Illinois and Texas. More bans are sure to follow.

Then came the death blow: new FDA regulations that took effect in May, 2014. The FDA upped its melanoma cancer  risk assessment of tanning from “low risk” to “moderate risk.” It also now requires warning labels on all tanning machines. The labels say no one under 18 should use the machines, and warns of risks to everyone.

How did we get here? Back in the day, having a dark complexion was thought to enhance the striations of muscle tissue.  And to this day fair-complected bodybuilding competitors still take the stage several shades darker than their genetics would allow. But most have come to recognize the health risks and now use spray tanning to get to their preferred shade.

Here’s where we are. It’s no longer a question of if tanning causes melanoma,  but how frequently.   Media outlets have taken notice.  The dogpile against the indoor tanning industry is clearly accelerating. The tanning industry has fought back furiously — and with a spectacular lack of success. Quite simply, the facts and evidence are not on its side.

If the sad experience of the tobacco industry taught us anything, it’s that money and denial doesn’t win the battle.  Medical evidence will eventually trump the Indoor Tanning Associations lobby and the industry will continue to suffer.

Which brings us back to health clubs and tanning.  Do we really want to associate ourselves with a product that carries the same negative connotation as tobacco?

“There is increasing evidence that tanning in childhood to early adult life increases the risk of skin cancer, including  melanoma,” says FDA dermatologist Markham Luke, M.D. Ph.D. And according  to a new JAMA Dermatology study, there are more skin cancer cases from indoor tanning than there are lung cancer cases from smoking.

As our industry continues to overbuild, clubs are becoming increasingly desperate to differentiate themselves from the new competition.

Perhaps the best way to separate yourself from the herd, is staying true to the name we bear on our signs.

Ironically,  many of the new chains such as Planet Fitness are placing their bets on tanning as the means to create new revenue streams.  This seems short sighted to me.

Staying nimble and having the foresight to see the public relations issue coming for the tanning industry might help you differentiate your brand from the new member mills that don’t exactly promote health and wellness.

Perhaps the best strategy is to go back to our roots and only provide services that benefit the health our members.  Perhaps using banners such as ‘We are a Tanning Free Health Club” or “We are a Melanoma Free Gym’ would be more in line with what our business label mandates.

The anti-tanning lobby is winning the fight and for good reason.

Tanning industry executives recognize this.  Over the last few years, several key tanning executives have downsized their tanning businesses and flocked to the health club industry.  If these new entrants have the foresight to recognize a dying industry, then the health club operators should take notice and transition accordingly as well.

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