Local doctors are hopeful the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee will approve legislation that would ban artificial tanning for children and adolescents under the age of 18 when it meets tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.
Doctors say artificial tanning has negative consequences, including increasing the risk of developing forms of skin cancer, such as melanoma, which can be fatal. Yet, tanning salon owners argue that doctors are sensationalizing the topic.
Dr. Lionel Bercovitch, MD, FAAD, the director of pediatric dermatology at Hasbro Children's Hospital and president of the Rhode Island Dermatology Society, as well as Dr. Jason Neustadter, MD, the chief resident of dermatology at Brown University and member of the American Academy of Dermatology Association, are in favor of the bill.
Neustadter is also a melanoma survivor.
“In the past decade, the world of scientific literature has unequivocally linked tanning beds to melanoma,” he said. “If you look at cancer statistics, melanoma is among the highest form of cancer in women 25 to 29. It’s overtaking breast cancer. It’s also the second most common form of cancer in women when you consider all adolescents to age 29.”
In 2009, Neustadter said the World Health Organization ruled ultraviolet tanning beds as the highest cancer risk category of a class-1 carcinogen, which is in the same category as cigarette smoke, arsenic and plutonium.
Further, he said he has seen more “staggering” results in population-based studies.
“One from the United States showed a 74 percent of increased risk of developing melanoma in persons who have used an indoor tanning bed versus those who never tanned,” said Neustadter. “The highest users of tanning beds had a 250 to 300 percent increased risk.”
Bercovitch added that studies have shown that the process of tanning and the exposure to ultraviolet light has harmful impacts on the brain.
“It has an addictive power to it,” Bercovitch said. “It’s not just a question of people doing it because they want to look cool, and that’s part of the adolescent risk-taking culture, they also physically become addicted. It’s like cigarettes in many ways.”
In fact, they said indoor tanning is parallel to smoking cigarettes in the sense that people didn’t know of the risks smoking caused when they took up the habit years ago. Eventually, doctors and lung cancer survivors realized it was a cause-and-effect relationship.
“It took awhile before the public got that cigarettes cause lung cancer and you shouldn’t smoke because of it,” Neustadter said. “I think that’s sort of where we are now with tanning beds. It’s taken as a symbol of beauty, wealth and status, sort of like cigarette smoking was considered cool in the ’60s and ’70s, so when young girls look to what the model of beauty is they see this tan body. I think that’s what motivates it. It’s been popularized in the media.”
While the doctors said there are some benefits of indoor tanning for people dealing with certain types of skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, ultraviolet treatment is performed under the care of physicians and nurses, unlike practices in tanning salons. Patients tanning for medical purposes, said Bercovitch, are subjected to shorter exposure times.
“When we treat eczema or psoriasis, we’re treating patients with one nanometer wavelength spectrum,” said Bercovitch. “We minimize the risk while maximizing the benefits knowing there are still some risks. These patients are educated up front about the risks and benefits.”
But, Andrew Monda, owner of Sun Center Tanning at 1978 Warwick Avenue, said he informs his customers of the risks indoor tanning poses. In fact, he limits his customers to one tanning session per day and advises particular clients not to tan as often as they do.
“I continuously warn them about the skin damage that they are doing to their bodies,” he said. “I had one girl who said, ‘I’m going to die of something, so I may as well look good in my coffin.’ Exposure to the sun is far more dangerous than a session of tanning. You can overexpose yourself in less than an hour whereas you can only tan once a day at my salon.”
Further, he doesn’t agree that indoor tanning is equivalent to smoking cigarettes. He called it an “outrageous comparison.”
“You can directly link cigarette smoking with lung cancer, while skin cancer could come from the sun or it could be genetic,” Monda said. “It’s not the same thing. You don’t need to tan when you get up or after you eat. People need cigarettes after they do those things.”
Monda feels the current law, which bans youth under the age of 18 from tanning without the approval of a parent or a note from their physician, is fair. Further, he said if the bill passes, he would lose at least 30 percent of his clientele.
“Do they really want to drive more small businesses out of Rhode Island in this hard economic time?” Monda said.
Michael Morse, who co-owns Sunkisst Tans at 1711 Warwick Avenue with his wife, Cheryl, said that while the bill won’t impact his business that much, as most of his clients are older than 18, he feels doctors are sensationalizing the issue.
“Their numbers are convoluted and not true,” he said. “We don’t want to take advantage of children.”
However, Neustadter said he does not seek to harm the tanning industry. Rather, his goal is to protect children.
“It’s a massive public health issue,” he said. “There’s no other way you can frame this.”
“Nobody is legislating what people need to do on their own time, but there’s an ethical obligation to look after the most vulnerable population,” he said. “We do that with smoking and alcohol. Parents can’t be forced to use common sense.”
Rep. Joseph McNamara, Chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee, said he has visited tanning salons in his district to make sure salon owners and employees are enforcing the regulations. As for the legislation, he is interested in hearing testimony tomorrow evening.
“We’ll listen to both sides,” he said. “We have a lot of expert testimony coming in. A compromise that may be acceptable is that as part of the permission slip there be a warning that parents will have to recognize the dangers of tanning. That might be a good first step. I think it will be an interesting hearing.”
If approved, restrictions would go into effect Jan. 1.