Any discussion of tanning bed laws should begin with a simple fact: There is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan.
Tanning represents DNA damage and cell mutations, which can lead to the development of skin cancer. This is why the debate about regulating commercial UV tanning devices is not a trivial policy matter; rather, we're talking about public health, especially the lives (and possible deaths) of children, who are increasingly exposing themselves to the risks of skin cancer. In fact, Idaho has some of the highest rates of skin cancer and related deaths in the country.
It's a sign of the times that large numbers of children and adolescents are using tanning facilities. Two to three million tanning bed users each year are teens. In Idaho, approximately one-third of all teenage girls are using tanning devices. Melanoma is now the second most common cancer among young adults ages 15 to 29. And the relative risk of melanoma is higher if tanning bed use begins at a young age.
The cultural pressures to present what's wrongly termed "that healthy glow," coupled with a lack of public awareness about tanning dangers and few restrictions on children and teens, has lead to this epidemic. The dangers are further amplified by growing evidence that tanning can be addictive; many tanners suffer from tanning addictive disorder or problematic tanning behavior.
Some teens have been led to believe that tanning can be good for their health; nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists have learned that tanning damages skin cells. Tanning beds primarily emit UVA, the component of sunlight that penetrates the skin most deeply.
Years ago, we wrongly thought UVA was safer for our skin. Although UVA takes longer to burn the skin, it has clearly been shown to prematurely age skin and cause DNA damage. What's more, the UVA in tanning booths is more concentrated and several times stronger than sunlight.
During debates last year over a bill similar to this year's H268, tanning lobbyists suggested that dermatologists stood to gain by restricting the tanning industry. I find this suggestion of profiteering by physicians both offensive and illogical. The rise in skin cancer generally means more visits and more patients for dermatologists; yet, by advocating for greater protection from cancer-causing UV radiation, we are proclaiming that we do not want to grow our business by seeing more skin cancer patients. Our support of this legislation stems from the patients we see who suffer and die from skin cancer.
What the tanning industry won't tell you is that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reprimanded it in 2010 for spreading misinformation. With that ruling, the FTC prohibited the Indoor Tanning Association from saying that tanning does not increase the risk of skin cancer, that tanning is safe or poses no danger, that tanning is approved by the government or that indoor tanning is safer than tanning outdoors. In fact, the FTC order highlights the illegitimacy of numerous claims that the industry has made through marketing and lobbying.
Several decades ago, public awareness of the dangers of tobacco lagged behind the growing body of medical evidence proving its ill effects. The tobacco industry sought to confuse the public through obfuscation and misinformation. Ultimately, public awareness caught up with the medical evidence and today we prohibit the use of tobacco by minors.
We have done this to protect our children and to support parents whose own responsible decisions require broader societal support to be most effective. We have the same obligations regarding indoor tanning and skin cancer.
With a bill before the Legislature, Idaho's medical professionals - including the American Academy of Dermatology, the Idaho Medical Association, the Idaho Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians - ask that we support Idaho's parents and protect our youth by banning the use of indoor tanning beds for those 15 and younger, and by requiring 16- and 17-year-olds to obtain in-person parental consent before tanning. Contact your state legislators and encourage them to protect our children and support this bill.
Dr. Steven Mings is an Idaho native and graduate of the University of Washington medical school. He is past president of the Idaho Dermatology Society, a clinical assistant professor through the University of Washington and a practicing dermatologist in Boise for more than 15 years.