A bill being considered in the Legislature proposes to keep young Maine people out of tanning beds until they reach age 18. The bill, LD 272, “An Act To Reduce Youth Cancer Risk,” represents prudent public health policy because it is based on significant scientific research.
The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, won initial passage Tuesday in the Maine House of Representatives, but it elicited vociferous opposition from Republicans on the House floor and via social media after Tuesday’s vote. Opponents argued that the bill would infringe on parents’ rights and extend the power of government too deeply into personal decisions.
Opposing arguments, however, are lodged mostly in rhetoric. Gratwick’s bill is backed up by documented research, not an opinion about the place of government.
In 2009, the International Agency on Research for Cancer elevated tanning beds to its highest risk category, “carcinogenic to humans.” Further, the agency’s review of 23 separate studies revealed that tanning bed use increases the risk of melanoma of the skin by 75 percent when use starts before age 30. It also detected a strong correlation between tanning bed use and heightened risk of melanoma of the eye.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, and, although melanoma accounts for less than 5 percent of reported skin cancer incidences, the American Cancer Society also reports that it often leads to other types of cancer.
The American Cancer Society recommends against the use of tanning beds altogether, labeling indoor tanning a practice that is “dangerous to your health, and should be avoided,” according to Dr. Len Lichtenfield, the society’s deputy chief medical officer. Gratwick’s bill proposes to let adults make those decisions for themselves while having government set parameters for children, as it does with smoking, drinking, driving, voting, education and military service.
Critics of LD 272 argue that young people seeking to tan quickly because of social pressures will simply expose themselves to the sun for longer, unhealthy periods. We recommend against doing so, but that’s an imperfect comparison.
A 2010 American Association for Cancer Research study, which factored a comparison of sun exposure to tanning-bed exposure into its methodology, concluded that “indoor tanning is carcinogenic in humans and should be avoided to reduce the risk of melanoma.” That study showed that damaging forms of ultraviolet radiation are more concentrated and therefore more harmful in tanning beds than from the sun.
Medical evidence provides a compelling argument that indoor tanning should fall into the same public health policy category as youth smoking and alcohol use. It’s no coincidence that some of the strongest legislative advocates for the bill — Gratwick, Rep. Anne Dorney of Norridgewock, Rep. Linda Sanborn of Gorham and Rep. Anne Graham of North Yarmouth — are all medical professionals. When diagnosing or treating patients, they would not be able to do their jobs if they let political ideology override science.
In recent years, the Legislature has taken incremental steps designed to protect young people from the dangers of indoor tanning, but given the mounting evidence of the risk it poses, those measures seem like inadequate, partial treatment.
As Maine and the nation grapple with spiraling health care costs, LD 272 also serves as a cost-containment tool. With data showing a far greater likelihood that people who use tanning beds regularly at an early age will get cancer, delaying that exposure and giving young people more time to fully comprehend the risk represents a prevention tool likely to save money and lives.