The health risks associated with commercial tattooing are often exaggerated when individuals or groups mount campaigns to prohibit the opening of a community's first tattoo shop, according to news accounts from across the U.S.
During the last ten years, according to U.S. News & World Report, tattooing has become one of America's fastest growing categories of retail business. There are now an estimated 15,000 tattoo studios in operation as the once-taboo practice of body-marking continues to gain broader acceptance and popularity throughout mainstream society.
As part of this cultural change, growing numbers of professional tattoo artists are opening -- and attempting to open -- studios in middle-class cities and towns that have never had such establishments in their business districts.
Inaccurate Risk Allegations
Reports indicate that the ensuing public debate routinely includes grossly inaccurate pronouncements about the alleged health risks of tattooing. Some local newspapers and TV stations have implied or suggested in their reports that tattooing may involve unusually high risks related to the transmission of such diseases as AIDS and Hepatitis.
Letters to the editor in some publications have often flatly stated that tattoo shops are major sources for AIDS and Hepatitis. For instance, one recent letter to a community newspaper in southern New Jersey charged that tattooing was involved in "the terrible price paid by loss of human life to AIDS" and went on to mention Hepatitis in a similar manner.
In response, local New Jersey tattoo artist Patrick Levins wrote: "While I understand how the debate about America's shifting cultural attitudes toward tattooing can get emotional, I think responsible citizens will agree it's important to address such health issues factually and logically."
Federal Disease Experts
One place where local citizens and journalists can find authoritative information about the epidemiology -- or the transmission and risk -- of AIDS and Hepatitis is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
CDC is the nation's foremost authority on communicable diseases.
It plays the leading role in investigating and documenting the patterns and causes of AIDS and Hepatitis throughout the United States. Headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., the CDC maintains a large World-Wide Web site (www.cdc.gov) on which it regularly publishes and permanently archives in-depth information about its findings. It also makes its data available for free to newspapers, local libraries, public health agencies and any local government official or citizen who requests it.
CDC categorizes tattooists as "personal service workers" along with hairdressers, barbers, manicurists, acupuncturists, and massage therapists. Since the early 1980s, this category of workers has received intense scrutiny in ongoing CDC investigations of how the HIV virus that causes AIDS is spread.
Brief but Dramatic: CDC AIDS Data
The CDC summary data about tattooing and HIV is as brief as it is dramatic. In its HIV/AIDS Surveillance Reports, CDC has consistently noted that it has documented "no cases of HIV transmission through tattooing" anywhere in the country since it began tracking such data in 1985 . By comparison, there have been at least 7 cases of HIV transmission associated with dentists and dental workers.
Hepatitis: More Dentists Than Tattoos
About hepatitis: Of the 13,387 annual cases of hepatitis detailed in the most recent CDC report, 12 are associated with tattoo studios. By comparison, 43 cases -- or better than 300% more -- are associated with dental offices .
Both numbers would appear to represent low levels of hepatitis risk -- a risk that has been further reduced by new safety procedures required of both dental offices and tattoo studios.
Some political pundits have noted that, given the statistics, community activists who are sincerely concerned about the potential spread of AIDS or hepatitis would do better to concentrate on local dentists rather than local prospective tattoo shop operators.
Other observers point out that while it is important to be vigilant for potential community health problems, there is no documentable basis to support public allegations that the process of contemporary commercial tattooing is an unreasonably disease-prone one.