RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina youths should be barred from getting bronzed at the local tanning salon because their risks for cancer are too great, a dermatologist told legislators Tuesday in support of a bill that would prohibit customers under age 18.
The House health committee considered the bill backed by several medical and cancer-prevention groups. Current law prohibits anyone 13 or younger from using salon equipment unless a doctor gives the child a written prescription, while children 14 to 17 only must have a parent’s permission.
Dr. Kelly Nelson, an assistant dermatology professor at Duke University medical school, said the rate of melanoma among women under age 50 is growing during an era in which the number of available tanning beds is increasing. Young people, particularly girls who want the summertime look year round, are being needlessly exposed to higher doses of ultraviolet radiation that can accumulate and break down skin cells over time, Nelson told House members.
“Melanoma can be deadly, particularly if it’s not diagnosed early,” Nelson said after showing images of melanoma or the less dangerous basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma of her patients. “Young people really need protection and that’s what this bill is about.”
More than 61,000 people were diagnosed with skin melanomas and about 9,200 died from them in 2009, the most recent year that figures were available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A committee vote was delayed at least until next week after a spokesman for a tanning salon industry-funded institute argued that bill supporters were misinforming lawmakers about the beds.
“We believe strongly that the parental consent standard that is in place in North Carolina works and should be continued,” said Joseph Levy, senior vice president of Smart Tan Educational Institute.
Levy said tanning beds generate two to three times the radiation that bill supporters argue correlate with the cancer compared to regular sunlight, not the 15 times Nelson calculated. And he cited data from the National Cancer Institute that he says show the incidence of melanoma for men over age 50 is outpacing women under 50.
If the bill becomes law, teenagers would simply go to unregulated tanning beds in homes or fly-by-night operations, Levy said. These beds aren’t regulated by the state and may not follow conservative tanning regimens.
Only California and Vermont have banned the use of tanning equipment by anyone under 18, while similar legislation has been introduced in eight other states this year, according to legislative researchers citing the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Rep. Mark Hollo, R-Alexander, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, acknowledged what might look like “contradictory” information. But he pointed to the bill’s support from several groups, including North Carolina Medical Society, American Cancer Society, N.C. Pediatric Society and the state’s Child Fatality Task Force, which recommended the legislation.
“It’s a public health bill. It’s a public safety bill,” Hollo said.
Rob Lamme, a lobbyist representing the North Carolina Dermatology Association, called arguments like Levy’s “faux science” and said once committee members “understand that the scientific community is absolutely unanimous about the harmful effects of indoor tanning that the bill will move.”
Lawmakers may be moved by stories from people like Anne Bowman of Charlotte, who said she was diagnosed with melanoma at age 32 and required a 6-inch incision in her lower back. She told the panel she went to a tanning bed for the first time at age 16, going before dances “because I thought I would look prettier with a healthy glow.”
Now, “I will never be considered cured from melanoma and the worry that it will spread will never leave,” said Bowman, who now leads a chapter of a melanoma-education group.
On the other side of the issue, American Suntanning Association Executive Director Tracie Cunningham, whose group represents 14,000 tanning salons nationwide, said in a release that “consumers should have the whole picture when evaluating the risks of getting too much or too little UV exposure.”