Now that we’re finally shedding our parkas and waterproof gloves, it’s time — unfortunately — to think about the dangers of tanning. Last fall the US Surgeon General’s Office issued a call to action on skin cancer, urging more research and awareness of a major public health problem. One obvious place to focus is tanning beds, where exposure to ultraviolet rays is most concentrated. And one obvious group to target is teenagers, who are both more susceptible to cultural pressure and more vulnerable to cancer. Studies show that people who first use tanning beds before age 35 have a nearly 60 percent greater risk of melanoma. That risk increases the more often tanning beds are used.
Advocacy groups such as the Melanoma Foundation of New England have been working to curb teens’ tanning habits, in part through public awareness campaigns (there’s one called “Your Skin Is In”) and in part by making tanning salons less accessible. At Salem State University, nurse practitioner Kaleigh Ensminger discovered last year that a tanning salon was on a list of local businesses that accepted student ID cards as debit cards. She successfully lobbied the school to end that relationship.
There is also a place for legislation — and a precedent, in tobacco regulations, for focusing on youth. About 41 states have laws restricting the use of tanning beds by minors, either through bans or parental consent requirements, according to Melanoma Foundation of New England executive director Deb Girard. Eleven states bar the use of indoor tanning beds by anyone under 18. In Massachusetts, minors now need parental consent to use tanning salons — a rule that public health officials say is easy to circumvent. The recently-introduced Senate Bill 1565 would ban indoor tanning for minors, but could face an uphill battle; Girard said previous efforts have failed because of objections from small businesses and concerns about a nanny state.
Some local-level action, though, could be changing the political dynamic. A few cities and towns are considering bans on teen use of tanning salons; last fall, the Danvers Board of Health, after studying the issue for two years, became the state’s first local board to ban indoor tanning by anyone under 18. Yes, this could send young people off to fry their skin in neighboring towns. But some suspect that if more local bans pass, then tanning salons will start supporting a statewide law to level the playing field. That law is overdue. It’s one thing to do something dangerous with informed consent. But when it comes to teenagers — whose youthful choices, in the name of fashion, could turn out to be life-threatening — extra caution is well worthwhile.