The tanning association described its strategy in a document on its letterhead that was posted last month on TanToday, an online industry forum: "Promoting the indoor tanning industry will require retention of scientists throughout the world to help us debunk the scientific reports being used against us, and a major PR and lobbying campaign to bring the truth about indoor tanning to the government and to the public."
The dermatologists said such claims are "ridiculous, and there is no data to support them. Indoor tanning is dangerous."
Alex Howe, a tanning association spokesman, said the document is not the group's official position.
The association has hired a public relations firm, is planning a lobbying campaign, and will work with "the many scientists who already support a balanced message," Howe said.
The World Health Organization says ultraviolet light from sunbeds causes cancer. That's because any tan is a sign of skin damage. Over time, tanning causes skin to wrinkle and age prematurely, leading to more skin cancer.
In addition, tanning devices aren't necessarily safer than sunlight and can be stronger. Melanona risks rise by 75 percent if tanning-bed use starts before age 35, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Tanning also leads to eye cancer and cataracts, the dermatology academy said.
DeAnn Lazovich, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, has shown how melanoma cases increase with the time spent tanning. She said the industry's long-running efforts to dispute the science are just "smoke and mirrors" to keep selling a service linked to cancer.
"They say, 'tan responsibly,' but I think it is irresponsible for them to promote their product when we know it is a cause of skin cancer," said Lazovich.
Jerod Stapleton, an assistant professor at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, has studied the tanning industry. He said many of the contrary studies cited by indoor tanning proponents are not peer-reviewed and appear to rely on cherry-picked data, have methodological flaws, or have been funded by the industry. "It's an interesting way of going about it," he said. "If you don't like what the science says, just go do your own."
Jan Meshon, a member of the tanning association from New York City, sees it differently. In a news release, Meshon said: "Consumers who choose to tan - and it should be their choice - need to be able to do so based on correct information about the potential benefits and risks of UV exposure."
The industry has taken some hits. The Affordable Care Act has imposed a 10 percent tax on salons. The industry also wants to persuade the FDA to refrain from tightening restrictions on sunbeds, which the American Cancer Society and other groups are advocating.
Even before the new group formed, the industry sought to prevent states and local governments from making it illegal for teens to tan indoors. At least 30 states, including New Jersey, have imposed some limits on teen tanning, and Vermont, California, and New York state ban anyone under age 18 from using a sunbed.
As the dermatologists noted, the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement in 2010 with another industry group, the Indoor Tanning Association, for making misleading statements about the health benefits of sunbeds. Separately, the Texas Attorney General has sued a salon chain for claiming that sunbeds reduce the risk of cancer.
The new industry group maintains that much research wrongly lumps in sunbed use at professional salons, which it calls less risky, with sunbed use at doctor's offices and homes, which it claims is more dangerous. When sunbed use in salons is considered on its own, "the risk virtually disappears," the tanning group maintains.
The dermatologists dismissed that claim, saying ultraviolet light is used in treatments for some skin conditions, including psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. The "crucial" difference is that the procedure is done by a doctor with expertise, the dermatologists' group said. "This type of medical care is not provided at an indoor tanning salon, where operators have minimal knowledge about the potential side effects of UV light."
FairWarning ( www.fairwarning.org) is a nonproft investigative news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health and safety issues.