Sun from a Package? Illegal 'Tanning Tablets' Give the F.D.A. a Slow Burn
Last March, for instance, a fair-skinned South Carolina housewife named Carol Thomason, 25, began taking Riviera Tanning Tablets (they now go by the name Hawaiian Tanning Tablets), which claim to produce "a beautiful golden tan all year round!" But by April, she says, "the palms of my hands and feet turned real orange. Then I got hepatitis." Her physician says Carol suffers from "drug-related hepatitis, the kind that comes from certain antidepressants and tranquilizers, yet she was not on any other medication and did not drink alcohol during that period. While there's no definitive test on the pills," says Dr. Gary Cottingim of Mauldin, S.C., "I know that as soon as Mrs. Thomason stopped taking them, her liver improved rapidly." New York dermatologist Dr. Norman Orentreich casts further doubts on the tablets. "Think of them as skin and fat stains—not an elegant color," he says. "There might be side effects which could have an adverse reaction on women with cystic breasts."
The pills, which sell for $30 per bottle of 72, are taken once to several times daily depending on the user's body weight. Wrapped in Mylar, to protect against light and humidity, the tablets contain two chemicals: beta carotene, from carrots and other vegetables, plus canthaxanthin, a food additive frequently used to enhance the color of pizza, barbecue sauce, orange juice and pet foods. Though accepted as coloring agents for food, cosmetics and some drugs, the ingredients have not been deemed legal for use in tanning tablets pending FDA approval. Since a May 28 FDA Import Alert, some three dozen packages have been seized at U.S. airports, most of them en route from Canada where the pills are permitted.
Many of the pills on the U.S. market are being turned out by the Cosmetest Division of Cosmetic Sciences, Inc. in East Rutherford, N.J. Pharmacist president Mario Ebanietti has been selling the tabs since November 1980, when he claims he first filed a still unanswered petition with the FDA for permission to sell his product. "We just couldn't wait any longer. We were concerned about people who cannot go out in the sun," he says blithely. Answers FDA spokesman Jim Greene: "A petition is not something to be taken lightly. We first heard from Ebanietti in mid-June of this year, and then it was a four-paragraph letter without even the $2,600 fee. Most legitimate firms know the system, and if they don't, they have to learn. The FDA is not considering this a formal petition." Since the pills are not yet regarded as an "immediate health hazard," the FDA has not forced the closing of Ebanietti's operation. Also, "We haven't got the money or the manpower to grab the pills off the shelves," admits the FDA's Greene.
An avowed tan-tablet taker himself, Ebanietti rejects claims of health hazards and argues that the lifeguard look, whether it comes from the inside or out, offers lots of advantages. "If three equally qualified people want the same job," reasons Ebanietti, "the employer would pick the tanned one because he or she would signify health." But how about an orange job applicant?