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Tanning Beds, Cancer and the Law

posted on Tue, Oct 11 2011 3:04 pm by Corey Davis

There is, in a cosmic sense, nothing particularly special about our sun. It is an unremarkable yellow dwarf, and it shares the Milky Way galaxy with somewhere between 200 and 400 billion other stars. Nevertheless, the sun is everything to us. If it were to stop radiating sunlight this afternoon, most life as we know it would cease within days.

Luckily for us, the sun is in no danger of burning out any time soon. Unluckily for us, the same celestial body that sustains nearly all life on Earth can also be harmful to our health.

As many of us have discovered firsthand, overexposure to the sun’s UV rays can cause acute effects such as sunburns and sunstroke. Repeated overexposure can also lead to skin cancer, which is now the most commonly diagnosed form of that terrible malady.

Forms of sun worship appear in many ancient cultures, from the Egyptians to the Romans. While sun worshippers are much less prevalent today, secular sun-seeking appears to be something of a national pastime.

Although they are a sign of skin damage, suntans are still widely considered to give the wearer a healthy aura. When the real thing isn’t available, some people replicate the sun’s effects by using indoor tanning machines.

Unfortunately, there is now strong evidence that indoor tanning, which exposes participants to the same UV radiation as the sun itself, can cause skin cancer in much the same way as exposure to the real thing. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, has placed indoor tanning in the same carcinogen class as cigarettes and plutonium and encouraged policymakers to enact laws discouraging its use by minors. According to the IARC, the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, increases by 75 percent in people who first started using tanning beds before the age of 35.

Based on this research and at the urging of public health officials and organizations, the United Kingdom has recently banned use of tanning beds by anyone under the age of 18. The FDA is reportedly mulling a similar ban. At least 32 states in the United States have also banned or restricted the use of tanning beds by children under the age of 18.

These laws vary by state. One state, California, forbids the use of tanning beds by anyone under the age of 18. Others permit minors to use tanning beds only with parental permission, while others ban their use by children under a certain age (typically 14) and permit it for those up to age 18 with parental permission. Most of these laws also require the tanning bed operator to limit exposure to the device manufacturer’s maximum exposure recommendation, and to provide and require eye protection.

Although an exact count is hard to come by, at least some municipalities have created their own rules regulating tanning bed use as well. As with tobacco control, the authority of local governments and boards of health varies across states.

This information was developed by Corey Davis, staff attorney, for the Network for Public Health Law – Southeastern Region at National Health Law Program.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

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