Skin doctors call on Massachusetts lawmakers to make tanning beds off limits to children

Dermatologists who treat skin cancer patients urged state lawmakers on Tuesday to approve a bill that would bar anyone under age 18 from using tanning beds, but salon owners accused critics of overstating the risks.

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Current Massachusetts law allows 14- to 17-year-olds to visit tanning salons with written consent from a parent or legal guardian. Children under 14 can only use a tanning bed if accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Doctors who testified before the Legislature's Public Health Committee said they had seen a sharp rise in the number of young people diagnosed with melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — and cited what they believed was a clear link to the increased use of sunbeds since they first became popular in the 1970s.

"The words, 'you have cancer' are never easy to tell a patient," said Dr. Jennifer Lin of Boston's Dana Farber Cancer Institute. "It's especially difficult if the patient hasn't finished college yet."

The institute sees 10 to 20 new cases of melanoma each week, said Lin, a number that corresponds with the 65,000 new cases nationwide and 9,000 deaths each year, resulting in $1.6 billion in health care costs.

Tanning beds emit ultraviolet rays 10 to 15 times stronger than the midday sun, Lin testified.

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Salon owners insisted tanning beds are safe if used responsibly in professional settings.

"Suntanning in moderation, without sunburn, actually has many positive effects on the body," said Glen Asaro, who operates Sunbanque salons in Gloucester and Beverly and argued before the panel that current parental consent laws were sufficient.

"I don't feel it is the government's job to take away a parent's responsibilities and rights when it comes to making a decision about letting their teenagers use sunbeds at a professional salon," he testified.

Asaro said he would lose about 10 percent of his business if the under-18 ban was approved.

Joseph Levy, scientific adviser to the American Suntanning Association, warned that a ban would have the unintended consequence of driving many teens to use unlicensed tanning devices without professional operators.

But supporters of the bill said the current rules weren't strong enough, claiming many adults were unaware of the potential harm of UV exposure to children and noting that mothers often accompany their teen daughters to the salons and tan with them.

Maryellen Maguire-Eisen, an oncology nurse and executive director The Children's Melanoma Prevention Foundation, recalled that during a visit to a school to discuss skin cancer protection, a teen asked her why you had to be 18 to get a tattoo but only 16 to go tanning.

"If this was really dangerous, we wouldn't be allowed to do it," she quoted the student as saying about tanning salons.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, New Hampshire, Vermont, eight other states and the District of Columbia ban indoor tanning for those under 18.