OLYMPIA, Wash. – Research shows if you use a tanning bed before the age of 35, you are more likely to get skin cancer. That’s why legislators in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have been considering proposals to bar teenagers from indoor tanning salons. A bill in the Washington legislature to do this has died for the fourth year. But the idea is still alive in Salem and Boise.
Jessica Hewlett is just 22 years old and already a cancer survivor. Last March, her primary doctor sent her to a dermatologist because of a mole on her stomach.
“It was small, the first one, but it was dark," Hewlett recalls. "For me, what I would see is that it looked pretty round and circular but under a little bit of magnification they noticed it wasn’t. It was irregular.”
Hewlett grew up on Grays Harbor, Wash., which doesn’t often see the sun. So in high school, she used tanning beds several times a week along with her sister and mother. But then her mom got skin cancer.
Hewlett never stepped into a salon again. Two years later with her own diagnosis of melanoma, Hewlett spent her vacation in long sleeves over layers of sunscreen.
“This last summer, I had to be very careful because I don’t want to go through all that pain again," she says. "The pain, the stress, the worry, the scarring is just unreal.”
National studies show that using tanning beds before age 35 increases the likelihood of getting melanoma by 75 percent. Hewlett says the bill to bar anyone under 18 from tanning salons could prevent others from getting skin cancer. California and Vermont have enacted similar bans. Many Northwest salons already ask for a parent’s permission. That much is required in Oregon, but Washington and Idaho have little regulation over the industry.
Joseph Levy from the American Suntanning Association testified in Olympia against the proposed age limit. He said the bill assumes salons alone are the problem, not sunburns from over tanning.
“To say that sunlight is harmful or UV exposure from a sun bed is harmful and should be avoided is like saying water causes drowning and therefore you should avoid water," Levy says. "It is a misrepresentation of a relationship.”
But not all tanning salon owners think an age limit is a bad idea.
Liz Flint owns Liz’s Indoor Sun in Tumwater, Wash. She says her industry should make sure customers are not tanning in excess, especially if they are not old enough to make informed decisions.
“For that reason I’m totally in favor of regulation of the industry," Flint says. "I think it’s up to us as owners to keep people educated about tanning.”
If a salon owner’s support of a tanning age limit is a surprise, so is the sponsorship of that proposal by a generally anti-regulation Republican. Sen. Curtis King voted against tanning limits in the past. But he changed his mind after hearing testimony from people living with melanoma, like Jessica Hewlett.
“You know, if that was my daughter that had gone there and overused the tanning booth, or even just used one, how would I feel?”
King’s tanning regulation bill got a hearing in the Washington Senate, but didn’t come up for a vote and died when a legislative deadline passed.
That’s disappointing to Jessica Hewlett. She’s now seven months pregnant. She just hopes a ban is in place before her daughter is a teenager.
“I do not want to have to worry when I give her her license and a car that she’s going to be going to the tanning beds. I dread it, it makes my heart kind of sink.”
Supporters of the tanning age limit expect it to come up again in Olympia next year. Meanwhile, Idaho lawmakers are considering a bill to bar kids younger than 16 from tanning beds. In Oregon, one proposal would require a doctor’s note for those under 18 to go to a tanning salon.
On the Web:
Skin Cancer Statistics - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Indoor tanning regulation bills:
- Washington SB 5521 - Washington Legislature
- Idaho HB 191 - Idaho Legislature
- Oregon HB 2896 - Oregon Legislature