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States Say No to Teen Tanning

Utah and Virginia Join 25 Other States in Limiting Underage Access to Bronzing Beds – Is There a ‘Personal Right to Tan’?

by Jennifer Nedeau, Special to

No smoking. No drinking. No talking on cell phones while driving. Now, the latest no-no in state laws aimed at underage teens is indoor tanning.

Spurred by worries about skin cancer, Utah and Virginia this year joined 25 other states in placing limits on teens seeking a bronze glow from the ultraviolet lights of a tanning bed. North Dakota’s Legislature is putting the final touches on a measure to also clamp restrictions on tanning salon patrons under age 18.

Most of the laws require underage teens to get mom’s or dad’s permission to lie under the tanning-bed heat lamps that emit intense UV light. A handful of states completely ban access to artificial UV light in salons for those younger than 13, 14 or 16. Others require teens to bring along a parent or a doctor’s prescription.

Critics say the tan bans are an example of government overreaching, while advocates compare the use of tanning beds to cigarette smoking and the drinking of alcohol – unhealthy practices states already put off limits to minors.

“We have labeling on cigarettes and alcohol and nothing on tanning beds that says ‘known carcinogen,’” said Dr. Arielle N.B. Kauvar, a dermatologist and chair of the American Academy of Dermatology Council on Communications.

But the restrictions have incensed the $5 billion indoor tanning industry and led to charges of government “nannyism.” “I think it is a personal right to tan, just like it is to talk on a cell phone. When are we going to stop over-regulating the lives of our youth?” said North Dakota state Sen. Nick Hacker (R), who voted against imposing tanning restrictions.

The North Dakota bill, which passed the House and was approved with amendments by the Senate, would bar customers under age 14 from indoor tanning without a physician’s prescription and the presence of a parent and would allow those ages 15 to17 to tan only with signed parental consent.

State Sen. Ralph Kilzer (R), a physician and one of the sponsor of North Dakota’s bill, said teens are most affected by exposure to UV light. “The younger you are when you have your tanning, the more likely it is to affect you down the road,” he said.

Virginia’s new law, which takes effect in July, will require teens under 15 to get parental consent before going into the salon. Utah’s new law requires parental consent for anyone under age 18.

Colorado came close to passing what would have been one of the nation’s strictest laws. The state House Monday (March 26) rejected a Senate-passed bill that would have made it illegal for anyone under 18 to use tanning beds without a doctor’s prescription, notarized parental consent or parental accompaniment at the tanning salon.

State Sen. Bob Hagedorn and state Rep. Annie McGihon, both Democrats, said they proposed the Colorado tanning restrictions after seeing growing reports about the linkage between UV rays and skin cancer.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, and Vermont are considering similar legislation.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared that ultraviolet radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, is carcinogenic. While there are safer options, such as spray-on tans often called “mystic tans,” most tanning salons only provide beds with heat lamps.

Kauvar, the dermatologist, said that bulbs from tanning salons emit 15 times the rays of natural sunlight, elevating the possibility for frequent users of developing both melanoma and non-melanoma cancer. There are an estimated million new cases of skin cancer each year. “It is extremely risky behavior, and research indicates it is habit-forming,” Kauvar said.

The Indoor Tanning Association, which boasts of 25,000 professional indoor tanning facilities in the United States and 30 million customers, insists that moderate exposure to the sun can be a benefit.

An article posted on the Indoor Tanning Association Web site states that sun exposure can help fight off depression by boosting levels of serotonin, reduce heart disease by raising levels of Vitamin D, prevent diabetes, prevent cavities, boost fertility, ease irritable bowl disorder, combat menstrual problems, ease skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne and eczema and can even help with weight loss.

“After 30 years of giving bad advice about the sun itself, they moved the argument to tanning beds. They were wrong about the sun, and they are wrong about tanning beds,” said John Overstreet, executive vice president of the tanning association.

According to an Academy of Dermatology press release, more than 1 million people use tanning salons on an average day. Of these, 70 percent are Caucasian females ages 16 to 49. More than 25 percent of teenage girls have used tanning salons three or more times in their lives. The Academy has identified the risks of indoor tanning as premature aging, such as age spots and wrinkles, and skin cancer.

Kauvar noted that the tanning industry has effective ways to get young people into tanning salons. She mentioned that at major universities, students can use their university cash cards to pay for tanning sessions.

Supporters of tan bans said their concern is minors. “We’re not going after the executive tans,” said Hagedorn in Colorado. “We’re going after the salons surrounding the high schools.”

For more on state government, visit

Editor’s Note: The number of states with tanning restrictions on minors, and the status of bills in Virginia and North Dakota, have been updated to correct a reporting error.

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