Five years after she pushed to require minors to get parental consent before using tanning beds, Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, wants to ban underage tans altogether.
She said Friday she will draft legislation that would ban the use of commercial tanning beds by minors. If lawmakers agree, Utah would join California, which became the first state to outlaw tanning for minors, effective as of Jan. 1. A handful of other states Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are also considering prohibitions.
"They want to go to prom and have a tan not realizing the health ramifications," Jones said.
Utah's current law, passed in 2007, requires parents to annually sign a consent form that includes information about the health risks of tanning. The form also specifies the number of times the teen can tan each year. But the law was not enforced, Jones said. In a limited review of the practices of indoor tanning salons in Salt Lake County, the University of Utah department of dermatology found teens could easily tan without parental consent.
Jones had considered tightening the law by requiring parents or guardians to attend each tanning session. That would have been easier to enforce and likely would reduce the number of times teens tan. Banning tanning entirely is a cleaner option, she said.
"It would save taxpayers' money really because they wouldn't have to go out enforce and administer it," Jones said. "Why should society provide something that is harmful to everyone?"
Health data show that nearly a quarter of all Utah female high school sophomores and seniors have used a tanning bed at least once in the past year. In the region covered by the Central Utah Public Health Department, 44.6 percent of 12th-grade girls had used a tanning device one or more times during the past year.
Utah has the nation's highest rate of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer. While the state's high altitude may be partly to blame, along with poor habits that lead to sunburns early in life and sun exposure in general, researchers continue to link skin cancer to exposure to ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds.
In 2009, the World Health Organization deemed tanning beds a human carcinogen.
A study presented at a conference for the American Association for Cancer Research in October found indoor tanning increased the risk of three common skin cancers. For every four visits to a tanning booth that the women in the study reported, the risk for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma increased by 15 percent. Those cancers are often treatable.
The risk for melanoma also jumped 11 percent per four visits, according to the research by a fellow at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Another study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in December estimated that 27 percent of early-onset basal cell carcinomas could be prevented if individuals never tanned indoors. Young people who tanned the study involved those younger than age 40 on indoor beds had a 69 percent increased risk of the most common type of skin cancer.
A 2010 University of Minnesota study found people who tan indoors for any amount of time are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma. The risk increases with how often the beds are used.
Such studies have fueled the momentum toward restricting access to minors, according to the Texas-based foundation Aim at Melanoma, which pushed for the California ban and is working with other states to do the same. While the group isn't behind Jones' current efforts, it helped her pass her 2007 law.
Leaving the decision to parents doesn't work, said Aim's Samantha Guild. "Parents are being misled to believe that tanning beds are safe," she said, pointing to some California company claims that indoor tanning can prevent certain forms of cancer and even cavities.
"The government needs to send a clear and unambiguous message that tanning beds are not safe" by banning them for minors, she said. "We do that already with cigarettes and alcohol."
The U. dermatology study concluded that passing a consent law doesn't protect children. Researchers randomly selected 15 businesses, which were visited by a 16-year-old and an adult last year to see whether they complied with state law.
Only four salons required parental consent before the teen could tan. Many didn't prominently post signs that warn that frequent or lengthy exposure may cause skin cancer, as required.
Many recommended daily tanning, violating state and Food and Drug Administration guidelines that recommend waiting 48 hours between sessions. And most didn't warn against tanning for adults who said they had a history of skin cancer or for minors who said they easily burn.
They are at the highest risk of the damaging effects of UV radiation, including skin cancers, said Christopher Hull, a U. dermatologist who was part of the study. "Compliance with the current law is not great," he said.
The study helped prompt Jones to reconsider the law. "They hire young people to work at these tanning salons. They're not informed about the law," she said.
Sancy A. Leachman, director of the Huntsman Cancer Institute's Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology Program, had encouraged Jones to seek a ban. Speaking for herself and not the U. facility, she said she has treated too many young women with histories of indoor tanning at her clinic. Some have died, leaving young families behind.
She said the tanning industry uses sex appeal to "prey" on the vanity of young women.
"These kids are 18 and under. They don't know what they're doing," she said. "Why would we not choose to ban a carcinogen ... in the same way that we have banned alcohol and tobacco in our young people who haven't yet grown up enough to make good, informed decisions?"