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Banning Teenagers from Tanning Beds

At the recommendation of doctors and in spite of the tanning industry, California may be the first state to set a precedent on tanning beds.

On May 2, a state Senate committee approved legislation that would make California the first state in the nation to ban teenagers from hitting the indoor tanning bed. The bill follows a statement in February by the American Academy of Pediatrics calling for a ban on ultraviolet (UV) tanning beds and similar devices for anyone under the age of 18, according to state Sen. Ted Lieu, who says “because skin damage is cumulative, the more exposure to tanning beds you have early in life, the worse it is later in life.”

Several scientific studies show a direct connection between indoor tanning beds and cancer, and the World Health Organization has classified tanning beds as a Level 1 carcinogen, the same as plutonium and cigarettes. Every year, an estimated 1 million people in America are diagnosed with non-melanoma cancer, which is caused by overexposure to the sun and tanning devices, according to the American Cancer Society.

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In 2004, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law banning anyone in California younger than 14 from using a tanning bed, but allowed teens between the ages of 14 and 17 to use them with parental consent. Many states have their own variations of tanning laws and regulations, but none ban tanning entirely for minors, despite the fact that the American Medical Association has recommended it. New York state has also introduced a bill that would ban indoor tanning to anyone under 18.

But with the addition of new medical evidence, as well as increasing support from not only the California Medical Association but also health insurers, Lieu, who tried to pass a similar bill in 2007, says he’s confident the bill will pass this time around.

“You have health insurers like Blue Cross supporting the bill because they realize the cost they’re paying for skin cancer treatment from people who get it from tanning beds,” he says.

Though California may be the first in the U.S. to ban teenagers from tanning beds, it will not be the first place worldwide. Many countries have already done this -- in April, England and Wales banned teen indoor tanning, and in February, Brazil banned tanning beds for cosmetic purposes for the entire population.

The tanning industry -- which in 2010 was sued by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving customers about health-care risks -- is up in arms about the bill, claiming that if banned from tanning salons, teens will resort to using unregulated home UV appliances. “You’re going to create a garage, underground tanning industry with this bill,” Joe Levy, executive director of the International Smart Tan Network, told the state Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.

Lieu doubts rogue tanning will take off anytime soon, however. “They will do what Snooki on Jersey Shore does,” he says. “They will do spray tanning.”

Shifting its teens away from tanning beds and toward spray tanning -- a safe method with the same “sunkissed” outcome -- is a win-win for California and its teenagers, Lieu says. Teens can still enjoy the glowing result without the cancer risk.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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