A bill that would restrict the use of tanning beds by teens under 18 made it through the House last year … and has been sitting ever since.
By Rose Hoban
When Anne Bowman was a teenager, she’d hit the tanning salon before a big dance. Later, in college, she would go to get a “base tan” before spring break.
Bowman didn’t think much of it until she was diagnosed with melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, when she was a 32-year-old mother of two.
So she came to Raleigh this week to ask legislators to make it harder for young girls to tan.
“I can’t go back to my 16-year-old self and beg her not to set foot in a tanning bed, but I can share my story in hopes of protecting our teens from going through what my family has gone through for the past three and a half years,” said Bowman, who lives in Charlotte.
But despite passing the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority last March, a bill to restrict young teens’ access to tanning beds has since been sitting in the Senate without action.
And even though industry representatives who fought the bill as it made its way through the House during the 2013 legislative session have withdrawn their opposition, senators have not indicated that passing the Youth Skin Prevention Act is a priority.
The bill, which would ban the use of indoor tanning devices for kids under 18, has been sitting in the Rules and Operations of the Senate Committee since the day the chamber received it. Rules is a committee where bills often go to wither and die, or they stay there until the Senate needs a bargaining chip to get something it wants from the House.
“I’ve talked to Senate colleagues about this,” said Rep. Jim Fulghum (R-Raleigh), a physician who sponsored the bill in the House last year. “I intend to keep talking to them about this issue.”
This week, the North Carolina Dermatology Association attempted a full-court press at the legislature, establishing a free temporary skin cancer screening clinic in a legislative meeting room, bringing in close to a dozen white-coated dermatologists to walk the halls and holding a press conference featuring Bowman, who needed to have a six-inch-incision on her lower back to remove her pencil eraser-sized tumor three and a half years ago. She also needed to have lymph nodes in her groin removed to prevent the spread of her cancer.
“I would rock my baby to sleep at night wondering if I’d be there to see him grow up,” she said, choking up.
Bowman wasn’t a regular tanner, but dermatologist Craig Burkhart from UNC-Chapel Hill was adamant that even a small amount of exposure is enough to jack up the chances of being diagnosed with melanoma.
The light used by tanning beds is “an artificial light; it’s [ultraviolet-A], very intense, that you don’t find anywhere else on Earth,” he said.
Burkhart said there’s “piles of data” showing that tanning beds increase the risk of melanoma.
But what got him into advocating for a ban was looking at the numbers. Melanoma is now the most common form of cancer for those 25 to 29 years of age and the second most common form of cancer for those 15 to 19. Recent studies show that teens and young adults who begin tanning before the age of 35 have a 59 percent higher risk of melanoma.
“When I ran a melanoma clinic for three years, a third of my patients were young females, 25- to 35-years-olds who used indoor tanning beds,” Burkhart said. The epidemiological data on melanoma cases shows that the other primary demographic that gets melanoma, white men in their 50s, has had about the same rate of the disease for decades.
“But what’s alarming is that the incidence in young women is going up,” he said, noting that the increase in incidence in younger women parallels the widespread introduction of indoor tanning in the 1980s. He said that by tanning, young women are adding about 25 years or more of exposure to their skin.
“It’s the only skin cancer in North Carolina that’s growing in incidence,” Burkhart said. “Everything else is leveling off.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13.3 percent of high school students have used a tanning bed. But drilling down in the statistics reveals that 29.3 percent of white high school girls have used a tanning bed in a given year.
Currently, teens between the ages of 13 an 18 can go tanning if they have a parent’s permission. During the debate last year, Rep. Marilyn Avila (R-Raleigh) expressed her misgivings about the ban, saying that she worried about taking parents out of the picture.
“I was a teenager,” she said. “I know how we cooked ourselves in the sun and all that kind of stuff, and no one was around to tell us how long we should lay there.”
Burkhart countered that although sun exposure is dangerous to young skin, the radiation from tanning beds is much worse.
“Some of these lamps are 15 times as strong as the sunlight you can get on Earth at any time of the year,” he said.
In addition, a study done by researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Cancer Center found that even though a majority of women went tanning for the first time with their friends, a significant number started alongside their mothers.
This year, the American Suntanning Association dropped its objections to the bill, noting that teen girls comprise only about 2 percent of the industry’s business. And Planet Beach, one of the largest tanning bed chains in the U.S., recently banned teens under 18 from its North Carolina salons.
“We want to elevate the discussion about a balanced message about UV exposure, and we believe in responsibly teaching people about the risks of overexposure to UV,” ASA spokesman Joseph Levy told WBTV in Charlotte earlier this year.
The industry has also supported bans for teens in 11 other states where they’re proposed.
In North Carolina, now it’s up to the state Senate.
Sen. Louis Pate (R-Mt. Olive), who sits on several health care committees, said members of his chamber are currently focused on getting the budget written and passed.
“The bill came over from the House, and they’ve asked that we take a look at it if we have time,” Pate said. “But it’s not part of the appropriations process.”