The pretty lights of tanning beds and the warm glow of a suntan, especially during a long, gloomy winter, can be almost irresistible — especially for teenage girls.
It’s a lure that has proved deadly for many. The incidence of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — has surged nationwide, especially in young women, in the past few years, health professionals warn. Already this year, the National Cancer Institute has reported 9,700 deaths from melanoma and 76,000 new cases in the United States.
With that in mind, several Minnesota legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit anyone under 18 from using indoor tanning beds.
Minnesota already requires parental consent for children younger than 16 to use tanning beds, but the proposed legislation would make the state’s tanning regulations among the nation’s strictest.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the bill’s author, said Minnesota has one of the nation’s highest rates of melanoma because of tanning beds. Tanning bed users are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who’ve never tanned indoors, the Skin Cancer Foundation says. A third of 11th grade girls in Minnesota used an indoor tanning salon at least once in the past year, according to a recent state survey.
Data like that moved Eaton, a registered nurse, to author the bill, which would require signs in tanning salons and apartments that house tanning beds warning of the danger and of the ban for those under 18.
Even the indoor tanning industry has come to support the legislation, which wasn’t the case last year, Eaton said. The tide of research proving that tanning causes cancer is helping it understand that limits are necessary, she said.
Those who run tanning salons in the metro area have varying takes on the legislation.
Don Nelson owns Totally Tan, which operates 16 suburban tanning salons. He said minors make up about 15 percent of the company’s business — many of them sent by parents who want them to get a base tan before a vacation to head off sunburns.
“Basically, it’s kind of ridiculous, because you’re taking the rights away from the parents,” he said of the proposed ban.
Darque Tan district manager Sarah Bean was less concerned. The national tanning salon chain, based in Texas, began banning minors from its Texas salons in September. But they didn’t take much of a hit, she said.
Bean said minors are a small part of Darque Tan’s clientele in Minnesota, so she doesn’t see the bill as a threat. If anything, she said, it could further promote spray tanning, which is also offered by many salons and considered safe.
Even one visit is risky
If the bill is passed, Minnesota would become the sixth state to ban indoor tanning for minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would like to see a nationwide ban, said Dr. Cindy Firkins Smith, a dermatologist and head of the Minnesota Medical Association.
Smith said she sees about one new melanoma case a week — much more frequent than years ago. Melanoma is appearing far more often in younger adults, Smith said.
She said she “absolutely” wants the bill to pass in Minnesota, as well as nationwide restrictions.
“I’m hoping that I never have to diagnose another melanoma [case] in anyone,” she said. “I want kids to love their skin they’re in … [and] accept their own beauty. [They] don’t need to damage their skin to achieve that.”
Many teens believe that tanning just once or twice won’t increase their chances of developing skin cancer. Wrong, Smith said. One time in a tanning bed, which has UV rays three times stronger than the sun’s, can increase the risk of melanoma by 20 percent.
“Going one time is one time too many,” Smith said.
‘You’re not invincible’
Megan Ramey, of Hugo, knows that all too well. Starting around age 15 and through high school, Ramey, now 24, would go tanning a few times before school dances, vacations or before an ice skating competition, she said. And once she got to college, she kept it up.
In her junior year of college in Mankato, she noticed an elevated black mole on her lower back that itched and bled. She visited a local urgent care, but was told she was too young for skin cancer, she said.
When she returned home to Hugo for the summer and had her yearly physical, her doctor was more concerned. The mole was removed and biopsied.
Ramey had Stage III melanoma; the cancer had spread to her lymphatic system. She was 20 years old.
For several years, she underwent treatments, and she’s now cancer-free.
Ramey wants young people to understand how dangerous tanning is. “You’re not invincible as much as you think you’re invincible,” she said.
Said Eaton: “It’s such a preventable form of cancer that I really hope people get the message … it’s not worth dying for.”
Cody Nelson and Danielle Dullinger are University of Minnesota students on assignment for the Star Tribune. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.