It’s prom season. And, almost, beach season. For some, it’s also tanning season.
Lawmakers on Tuesday expressed concern about youths using tanning beds, voting 103-12 in the House to change state law and prohibit anyone under 18 from using indoor tanning beds.
Supporters called it an act to protect children’s health. The issue now heads to the state Senate. If it advances, North Carolina would join 11 other states and the District of Columbia in banning the use of indoor tanning beds by anyone under the age of 18.
Current state law allows those under 18 to use tanning beds only with parental consent. Children under the age of 13 are now banned from using tanning beds unless a doctor says it is needed for a medical reason.
The movement to ban youths from tanning beds is rooted in research, including from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that has categorized the possible effects from indoor tanning bed alongside asbestos exposure and tobacco use – it’s known to cause cancer.
Acting surgeon general Boris Lushniak has also focused attention on prevention of skin cancer. Data in a surgeon general report shows that incidences of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have increased since the mid 1970s, and are projected to continue to increase over the next five years.
“Skin cancer is a major health problem, especially for young people,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Donny Lambeth of Winston-Salem. “We are in the middle of a skin cancer epidemic. This bill will save lives.”
The bill is named after former state Rep. Jim Fulghum, a retired neurosurgeon who died last summer. He sponsored the same bill in the last legislative session.
Supporters said many tanning salons are now backing the bill, in part because spray tan products – the alternative for many teens – have a higher profit margin.
“I was amazed at how many of them thought this was a good idea,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican. He said he personally talked to several tanning salon owners.
“If your concern is that we’re going to hurt small business, I don’t think that’s really valid,” he said.
Advocates have been pressing for change after a similar bill last year failed to pass into law. Its unclear how it might fare in the state Senate this year.
“We need to start getting the word out to these kids that going to prom shouldn’t increase your risk for getting cancer,” said Christine Weason, state government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
Nancy Autry, a volunteer for the network, said she used tanning beds in her late 20s because her dermatologist recommended it for treating psoriasis.
“I went six days a week, for three months at a time. I’d get just as dark as I could get, and then I’d go spend a whole summer down at the beach and get just as dark,” she said.
‘I had no idea’
In 2013, Autry was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a generally treatable form of skin cancer, that was on the verge of turning into melanoma.
“I had no idea it would do that damage to me back then,” she said.
Joseph Levy, scientific liaison to the American Suntanning Association, said research on the dangers of using tanning beds often include personal tanning beds as well as tanning equipment used for medical purposes. Personal tanning beds are often where the biggest risk lies, he said.
“Rather than attempting to judge an industry on perception on those who misuse a product, we should be judged on the correct usage of the product and the regulations that are in place,” Levy said.
He said parental consent under current law, not an outright ban, is crucial to ensuring safe use.
Lambeth said in an interview he came to support the bill because of his four daughters, who he said used tanning beds in preparation for their high school proms. He said he is opposed to adding regulations to businesses, but said medical concerns outweighed the economic.
“This is a little challenging for me because it is regulating,” he said, “but I look at the weight of the evidence, and the fact that skin cancer is so prevalent, and there’s so much evidence that points to tanning beds and the younger the ages, the higher the risk.”
Rep. Marilyn Avila, a Wake County Republican, who voted against the bill last session, said in an interview that taking parents out of the equation as well as regulating tanning bed use could produce unforeseen consequences.
“If they want a tan, they can go to the sun and bake with no control, no supervision,” she said.
Susan Sanders, a dermatologist from Concord and the former president of the North Carolina Dermatology Association, said spending 20 or 30 minutes in a tanning bed is equal to spending an entire day laying out in the sun.
Sanders said she has diagnosed an increasing number of skin cancer cases in young women since tanning bed technology was first introduced.
“A lot of people that I’ve talked to, they’ve realized there’s a small risk and they think, ‘If I get skin cancer, they can just cut it out and I’ll be fine,” Sanders said.
While sometimes it’s as mild as that, it isn’t always the case.
Bret Schaffner of Cary, who visited lawmakers to urge passage of the bill, said when he was first diagnosed with melanoma six years ago, he turned to his wife and said: “It’s just melanoma. Everyone in California has melanoma.”
Now after a long battle, Schaffner’s doctors have found a massive tumor in his leg, he said, and he’s not sure if he will make it through the year.
“It’s bad enough to think my son’s going to bury me, the thought that I would bury my son or daughter…” he said. “For a freaking tan, a parent buries a child.”