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Teen Tanning Bans Grow Across U.S., But Opposition Remains In Missouri

Briana O'Higgins

Every year about this time, teenagers everywhere hear the call of spring break. To get pale, winter skin ready for the beach, lots of spring breakers make a few visits to a local tanning salon. Recent studies show around 30 percent of white high school girls tan at salons.

Many new proposed state laws aim to reduce that number, but health advocates have found Missouri especially resistant to any legislation that gets between skin and UV bulbs.

At Electric Sun Tanning Salon in Lenexa, Kan., Heather Cooper guides newcomers through a skin type analysis to get them started on a tanning regimen. Many tanning salons, like this one, follow voluntary safety practices as well as state regulations.

In Kansas, salons are required to post safety warnings and provide those little goggles, among other rules.

But Missouri currently has no state laws or even regulations regarding tanning, and health advocates say more needs to be done to protect people like Abby Eckel.  

“I don’t think I knew many people that didn’t indoor tan,” says Eckel.

Abby Eckel went to Piper High School in Kansas City, Kan., class of 2007. It started as a way to get ready for a dance, but it wasn’t long before, like a lot of her classmates, she was tanning every day.

“After softball practice, you would see every girl you just had softball practice with at the tanning salon,” Eckel explains.

Through some ups and down, indoor tanning in the United States has continued to grow in recent years into a five-billion-dollar-a-year industry, thanks in part to teenagers like Eckel, who tan despite increasing numbers of reports linking indoor tanning with skin cancer.

“I thought of it as a lesser type of cancer that more people defeat, than, as opposed to lung cancer or breast cancer or something like that,” Eckel says.

In fact, one person dies from melanoma, which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, every hour in the US. One in five Americans will develop one kind of skin cancer at some time in their life.

As a dermatologist, Dr.  Brunda Balaraman spends most of her time treating skin and diseases like skin cancer. She’s currently finishing her residency at Barnes Jewish hospital in St. Louis, Mo. But she recently turned her scientific lens on the Missouri tanning industry.

As part of a study, she and a partner called hundreds of tanning salons across the state.

“We portrayed ourselves as teenagers trying to get a tan,’ says Balaraman.

They found that 43 percent of Missouri salon employees said there were no risks to indoor tanning.

Sixty-five percent would allow children as young as 10 or 12.

“We were disheartened, but not completely surprised,” says Balaraman. “Cause there have been other studies that have been done in other states without legislation, and it kind of mirrors some of the findings in other states.”

Recently, groups like the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Cancer Society have been pushing for new tanning laws. In 2014, many states are considering laws that would restrict teens from indoor tanning to one way or another. And in the past few years, several states banned teens from salons altogether. That’s what some legislators have in mind for Kansas.

In Missouri, the charge for tanning legislation is being led by Representative Gary Cross (R – Lee’s Summit, Mo.) His daughter, Melissa, had been a teenage tanner.

“She was diagnosed with basil cell cancer on her forehead,” Cross explains.

Cross is not what most people would call a rules-and-regulations kind of legislator. He’s voted against regulations for dog breeders, against regulations on farmers, even loosened rules for home beer brewers.

But he believes indoor tanning is different.

“I have a small business background, and I am very passionate about small business,” says Cross. “But I’m also passionate about human life.”

In 2011, Cross introduced what he hoped would be the state’s first tanning law. It would’ve required teenagers to get their parents’ permission before tanning. It didn’t pass. He tried again the next year and again the year after that.

Another law proposed in 2013 would’ve barred children under 6 from tanning salons, but it didn’t pass either.

This year, Cross has introduced a bill that would only require parental permission for teens sixteen and younger – pretty tame compared to what’s being considered in other states. But it’s still being met with some strong opposition.

“They’ve gone crazy over this whole thing,” says Terri Wheeler, owner of the Sun Scene salon in Raymore, Mo.

She already requires parental permission for teen does not think a new law is needed.

A lot of salon owners like Wheeler think they are being unfairly targeted by the new proposed laws and a ten percent tanning tax created by the Affordable Care Act. Salons owners say teens will tan whether or not they have easy access to salons.

Joe Levy is scientific advisor for the American Suntanning Association. He says that creating restrictions will just drive teens to tan aggressively outside or to buy their own equipment.

“If you check Craig’s List and eBay – for several hundred dollars you can purchase a home tanning unit,” says Levy. “So they are within the realm of affordable. And they will end up in garages and basements and teenagers will use them.”

Despite those concerns, the American Suntanning Association actually supports laws banning teens from salon.

But in Missouri, owners like Terri Wheeler aren’t convinced that regulating the industry is a good move.

“I think lawmakers are overstepping their bounds in trying to say what our kids and families can or cannot do,” says Wheeler. “They’re over-controlling, and they need to stop it.” 

Inside a tanning bed, fans whirl away while light from 6-foot UV bulbs makes skin look blue. Plenty of teens will flock to these machines in the next few months, but Abby Eckel won’t be one.

She gave up tanning for good last year after noticing some skin damage before her wedding.

“I will never set foot in a tanning bed again,” says Eckel.

For Gary Cross, the next few months offer another chance to bring regulation to Missouri’s tanning industry. But he says if his legislation doesn’t pass this year, he’ll keep bringing it back until it becomes law.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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