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State sues Total Tan and a New York City salon, alleging they falsely claimed tanning fights cancer, disease

Tanning as a treatment for kidney cancer?

For improving muscle efficiency?

Preventing Alzheimer’s disease?

Total Tan, based in Blasdell, and a New York City tanning salon have been making such claims, according to the state Attorney General’s Office, which has filed false advertising lawsuits this week to get them to stop.

Fifteen of Total Tan’s 26 retail salons in this state are located in Western New York. Portofino Spas is the other salon franchise.

“Make no mistake about it: There is nothing safe about indoor tanning,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. “The use of ultra-violet devices increases exposure to cancer-causing radiation and puts millions of Americans in serious danger – young adults, in particular.

“Irresponsible businesses that seek to rake in profits by misleading the public about the safety of their services will be held accountable by my office,” said Schneiderman, who’s seeking a permanent injunction and civil penalties of $5,000 per act of false advertising.

Both companies are accused of denying or minimizing scientific evidence linking tanning to an increased cancer risk; promoting indoor tanning as a safe way to reap the benefits of vitamin D and other purported health benefits; and asserting the safety of indoor tanning compared to tanning outdoors.

“The Attorney General’s claim that Total Tan produced misleading advertising is not true,” owners Cynthia and Keith Leonard said in a statement issued through Harris Beach, the law firm representing them.

“We are a small, upstate, family-owned business that refuses to be intimidated by Mr. Schneiderman, who is trying to impose his own view of the world on our industry and the citizens of upstate New York,” the Leonards stated.

The lawsuit alleges that Total Tan made various statements on its website – including links to external sources of information, through social media and on posters at the salons. Misrepresentations about indoor tanning’s association with vitamin D production included a testimonial from “cancer survivor Kurt Hollis,” in which he purportedly treated his kidney cancer by tanning.

A post made to Total Tan’s Twitter account in September 2012 and March 2013 stated: “Tanning Fact! A Tanning unit can produce as much Vitamin D as drinking 100 glasses of milk! Wow!!!”

An independent study was done of specific advertising between December 2012 and August 2013 to which the Attorney General objected, according to William P. Albert, a spokesman for Harris Beach.

Michael S. Pepe, an assistant professor of marketing at Siena College, subsequently provided a sworn affidavit, which was shared with Schneiderman’s office, stating Total Tan’s advertising comports with federal and state law.

“The professor was given the advertisements that the Attorney General alleged were problematic and came to the independent conclusion that they were not deceptive under state law and Federal Trade Commission guidelines,” Albert said.

According to the lawsuit, Total Tan has posted statements that vitamin D production from indoor tanning prevents and treats diabetes, improves muscle efficiency and prevents Alzheimer’s disease, among other things.

Total Tan has revised its website at least twice since it was notified by the Attorney General’s Office in August 2013 that it contained false and misleading claims, according to the lawsuit. But some of those claims still can be found through Internet searches, it was noted.

The investigation of Total Tan began after the Clarence facility was inspected in May 2013 by an investigator from Schneiderman’s office, according to Harris Beach. That investigator, who left her job later that year, was the spouse of a Total Tan executive who was fired, according to a letter provided by the law firm.

After Schneiderman’s office failed to address the apparent conflict of interest, the attorneys for Total Tan filed a complaint with the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics; that investigation continues.