March 11, 2013

Texas House bill would bar children from tanning salons

Bill filed by state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, would allow only adult Texans into tanning beds. The bill would raise the current legal age for tanning from 16 1/2, which requires parental consent, to 18.

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Brandi Dickey was no stranger to a tanning bed.

Like other girls her age, she tanned about three times a week in high school - and on and off through the years until she turned 28.

"It was to keep up with everyone else - the other girls tanned too," said Dickey, now a 31-year-old Azle woman. "After high school, it was more for the color and how I looked and how my clothes looked on me."

She stopped tanning after finding a mole on her stomach that within two months grew to the size of a dime. The dermatologist who removed it told her it was melanoma.

"When you hear skin cancer, you think, 'Oh, everything will be fine.' They'll take it off and you'll move on with your life," Dickey said. "That's not what happens."

In the past three years, Dickey said cancer has moved to her brain, body, liver, lungs, ovaries, abdomen and back to her brain.

She is now speaking out in favor of a proposed bill filed by state Rep. John Zerwas that would only allow adult-aged Texans into tanning beds.

The bill would raise the current legal age for tanning from 16 1/2, which requires parental consent, to 18.

"The evidence is so clear and evident in terms of what the increased risk is for subsequent development of skin cancer, that the bill simply addresses that," Zerwas, R-Richmond, has said.

But local indoor tanning companies -- as well as national tanning associations -- say the bill is not the right way to go.

This measure "sends the wrong message about UV exposure, which should be done moderately and responsibly under the supervision of trained operators and in the case of minors should involve their parents," said Tracie Cunningham, executive director for the Michigan-based American Suntanning Association, an advocacy group for the indoor tanning industry.

"Just as parents have guided their children to avoid sunburn while enjoying days at the beach or playing little league, the same should be the case for sunbeds," Cunningham said. "Banning teens will result in pushing them to unregulated alternatives like home units or even risking sunburn outdoors."

Indoor tanning is being discussed in state capitols across the nation, as more than a dozen states are now considering legislative proposals to ban youths under 18 from those tanning booths.

As doctors say these tanning beds are putting youths' health at risk, salon operators say they are doing their best to help people.

"Everything in moderation is OK. But if you over-do anything, it can be detrimental," said Melody Brainin Cokel, co-owner of Tan Lines in Keller. "... We make sure our customers tan smart," she said, adding that they strictly enforce the 24 hour waiting period between tans and don't push anyone to tan longer than they should. "We are careful. We are in the business to make people beautiful, not give them skin cancer."

The ASA says that about 3 million people are referred each year - by their family doctors or dermatologists - to tanning beds for "cosmetic skin self-treatments and other non-tanning reasons." Those treatments create about $5 billion to $10 billion in annual health care savings when patients use indoor tanning beds instead of "expensive phototherapy treatments," according to the association.

In fact, tanning salons are licensed through the state health department and are considered medical equipment, said Joe Cokel, co-owner of Tan Lines.

"Follow the money on this," he said. "Why do dermatologists want us to close this down? ... Before tanning salons were in vogue, they could charge $120 a session for 'light therapy.' What is that? It's a tanning bed."

The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology shows that 873,000 phototherapy sessions were performed in dermatology offices across the country to treat conditions such as psoriasis, acne and eczema in 1993. By 1998, that number dropped to 53,000.

About 30 million people nationwide tan indoors, according to the American Suntanning Association.

'It's dangerous'

Dickey, who worked and tanned at a salon when she was 16, said she believes people these days should have to be at least 18 to do both.

"Girls don't know the dangers of these tanning beds and what they are capable of doing," she said. "After 18, they can do what they want. But before that, it's a no-brainer."

If she had had to wait, she said she thinks her life might be very different.

"I don't think I'd be lying in the hospital right now," she said. "It would have given me more time to mature and read about it and make myself aware of what it's about, rather than be-bopping in there and getting me a tan."

When Dickey first heard the diagnosis of melanoma, she said she didn't realize how bad it was.

"It gets in your blood stream and it's dangerous. I thought this was the end of my life," she said. "And Stage 3 grew to Stage 4 very quickly."

Dickey travels from her Azle home with her mom, Paula, to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston every two to three weeks for various treatments.

She has gone through more than a dozen surgeries as well as radiation on her brain.

The most recent procedure was to remove a tennis ball-size tumor from her bowels.

"This cancer, it's never really OK. That's reality - you are never really OK and it is not ever considered in remission," Dickey said. "I've been on every treatment that's FDA approved."

None have worked.

Next, she said, she's trying to get in a clinical trial, to see if new medicines being developed might help her. "I take it one day at a time," she said. "I've beaten the statistics so far."

Informed consent

Advocates say this bill is just as needed as current laws that require motorists to wear seatbelts and restrict alcohol and tobacco sales until consumers are old enough - in the eyes of the law - to make those purchases.

"We have things we hope promote healthy living," said Dr. Michael Wilkerson, president of the Texas Dermatological Society. "At least until the age of 18, we need to help educate people.

"The way you do that, you restrict activities," he said. "Then hopefully, when people are old enough, they'll make their best decisions."

Each year, more than 2 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed throughout the country, according to the Cancer Action Network.

Health officials say exposure to UV radiation "from sunlight or tanning beds" is connected to the development of skin cancer.

"We can't protect people forever," Wilkerson said. "But we can protect them until an age that's informed consent."

In 2001, Texas passed a law requiring anyone younger than 13 to get a physician's consent to use a tanning salon. In 2009, lawmakers passed a law requiring Texans between the ages of 16 1/2 to 18 to have parental consent to use a tanning booth.

And in 2010, tanning salons had to start paying a 10 percent tax on their services, as one of the many ways the country's new national healthcare law is being funded.

Now, salon owners are wondering how big the impact will be if the latest proposal passes.

"I hope it wouldn't put me out of business, but I don't know," Joe Cokel said. "Major chains can afford the hit, but a lot of mom and pop businesses would be devastated by this."

Anna M. Tinsley, (817) 390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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