BANGOR - Maine would become the third state in the nation to prohibit anyone under age 18 from using tanning beds under newly drafted legislation.
A draft bill submitted by Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, called "An Act to Reduce Youth Cancer Risk," would make it illegal for indoor tanning facilities to allow minors to use tanning beds and booths. Current Maine law allows minors to tan indoors if they provide a consent form signed by a parent or guardian.
If the bill ultimately passes as written, Maine would join California and Vermont as the only states in the country to ban indoor tanning among all minors. Other states take a variety of approaches, including prohibiting tanning among children age 16 and under, requiring a parent to accompany the child, or imposing no statewide restrictions.
The legislation, which hasn't yet been printed, is backed by the Maine Medical Association, the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. Members of Gov. Paul LePage's health policy staff met with representatives from those groups last week to discuss the legislation, according to the Maine Medical Association.
Gratwick, a Bangor rheumatologist, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The legislation would not apply to spray tanning, tanning devices in the home, or therapeutic and diagnostic equipment that emits ultraviolet radiation.
Studies have linked exposure to UV radiation from sunlight and tanning beds to the development of skin cancer. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is now the second most common type of cancer among people age 15 to 29, according to the American Cancer Society. Indoor tanning before the age of 35 increases the risk of melanoma by 75 percent.
Adolescents are particularly at risk because their skin is not yet fully developed.
Dr. Robert MacNeal, a Portland dermatologist who was involved in drafting the legislation, said the bill would protect the health of Maine teens until they're old enough to assess the risks of tanning.
"If you get one sunburn, if you go tanning once when you're young, that's it, the DNA is damaged," he said. "Your risk of getting skin cancer is higher for the rest of your life. So what we're trying to do is protect young people during a period of their life when they may not be the best informed, they may not be able to make the best decisions for themselves."
Tanning is most popular among young women, often fair-skinned teens who are most prone to skin cancer, he said.
"I've done skin cancer surgery on people as young as 16 and 17," MacNeal said.
Indoor tanning by teens in Maine exceeds national averages, according to the American Cancer Society. A quarter of all female high school students in Maine went indoor tanning at least once in the past year, according to the 2011 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. The rate was 14.2 percent among girls in grade nine, and climbed to 38.2 percent among girls in grade 12.
Less than 8 percent of high school boys reported indoor tanning.
Ann Lucas, owner of Attitudes Hair and Tanning in Bangor, opposes the proposed legislation, saying the health risks of tanning have been overblown. The benefits, including providing vitamin D and a mood boost, are under-recognized, she said.
"I think it's insane, tanning has been made to be so negative when it's so good for you," Lucas said.
The customers who visit her salon, including teens, are better off tanning with a set time limit than going outdoors and getting burned, she said.
The indoor tanning industry also has argued that questions remain about the link between UV radiation and skin cancer, and that indoor tanning salons educate their customers about the potential risks.
MacNeal countered that there are safer sources of vitamin D than tanning or sunbathing, including supplements, and that the mood lift tanning offers can become addictive.
As for tanning being a safer alternative to sunbathing outside, tanning beds deliver UV radiation at doses five to 15 times higher than the summer midday sun, according to the American Cancer Society.
UV light can offer relief for sufferers of skin conditions such as psoriasis -- by suppressing the skin's immune response -- but such treatments should be closely monitored and controlled by a physician, MacNeal said.
"This isn't even scientifically in question at all. It clearly damages your skin and causes skin cancer," he said of tanning.
MacNeal likened indoor tanning among teens, even with a parent's blessing, to the public health risks associated with smoking.
"Parents who smoke might not think it's a big deal for their kids to smoke, but as a society we say it's probably not the best thing for our children's health," he said.
A legislative resolve was proposed several sessions ago to tighten Maine's regulations on indoor tanning, including outlawing tanning among those 14 and younger, but stalled during the rulemaking process, according to the Maine Medical Association. Under the new bill, tanning facilities would face fines and possible loss of licensure as a penalty for serving minors. ___
This sounds well and good, but just like anything else, you have to try to think about unintended consequences. Ban or not, teens will continue to seek tans and they will seek out unmonitored home tanning units and unsafe habits in the natural sun. Research shows that the risk of using home tanning beds is far greater than using them in salons - presumedly because of exposure time and because salon workers are trained to not allow clients to overexpose. As much as doctors would like you to believe it, research has not shown a statistically significant correlation between tanning in salons and melanoma - only with home use and medical phototherapy. Melanoma is clearly a very sad thing, but when talking about legislation, emotion and anecdotal evidence must be put to the side. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of young people have always gotten melanoma, and continue to. But melanoma in young people is not on the rise according to National Cancer Institute data.