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Tan-talizing, but safe for teens?; Sharp rise in skin cancer stirs call for salon age limit

Melanoma cancer cases have risen by 70 percent in a 10-year period across New York State -- and by nearly 100 percent in Erie County, health groups reported Thursday as they pushed for a ban on the use of indoor tanning beds by teenagers.

The American Cancer Society reported the new statistics, using state Health Department data, and said cases of skin cancer are on the rise partly because of increasing popularity of tanning salons, particularly among teenage girls.

The Cancer Society is pressing State Senate Republicans from Western New York to back the effort to restrict use of the private tanning facilities to people older than 18. The effort has stalled in the Senate in the last couple of years.

Two local Senate Republicans said restrictions on indoor tanning should be left up to parents. They noted that neither the federal government nor the vast majority of state governments have banned tanning salons for safety reasons.

Backed by an oncologist, a dermatologist and a melanoma survivor, officials from the Cancer Society said the indoor tanning lobby has turned back efforts in the last couple of years to get the measure passed in the Senate. The Assembly approved the ban last year and in January.

"We can't really do much about the sun, but it is within the power of the Legislature to do something about tanning salons," said Russell Sciandra of the New York chapter of the Cancer Society.

"It's good public health policy," Laura D. Krolczyk, director of government and community relations, said of the ban pending in the Senate. "If it's a preventable cause of cancer, we have an obligation to protect children from being exposed."

Health groups and tanning companies have been battling for years over the safety of indoor tanning beds. Cancer specialists say that tanning, including indoors, exposes people to dangerous levels of ultraviolet light and that 4,700 New Yorkers this year will be diagnosed with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

The new Cancer Society report showed the annual rate of melanoma per 100,000 residents in New York going from 9.2 during a five-year period ending in 1998 to 15.8 in the period ending 2008.

The 72 percent increase statewide compares with about a 98 percent increase in such cancer cases in Erie County during the same period.

"Exposure to UV radiation, either from sunlight or indoor tanning devices, is the most important, avoidable known risk factor for skin cancer," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a report, also issued Thursday.

The CDC said 5.6 percent of adults reported indoor tanning in 2010, a level that soared to 32 percent among white women age 18. Sixty percent of those who underwent tanning indoors were women.

New York law now bans children 14 and younger from using indoor tanning salons. Between the ages of 14 and 18, written parental consent is required, though health groups worry that the law is not aggressively enforced. The new plan would ban indoor tanning for anyone younger than 18, with or without parental consent.

Health organizations say studies have shown the numbers of teenagers, especially girls, turning to indoor tanning skyrocketing in the last couple of decades, from about 1 percent in 1998 to 27 percent in recent studies, according to Sciandra.

Dr. Charles H. Weissman, an Albany-area oncologist who joined with health groups Thursday in pressing for the legislation, said he has seen an alarming number of younger patients over the years coming to his practice for melanoma treatment.

"There's no justification this shouldn't be approved," he said of the legislation.

But the indoor tanning lobby has been spending money on donations to representatives in Albany to beat back the effort to ban teens from their facilities. They say that theirs is an industry already heavily regulated and that its 700 or so tanning salons in New York already operate under some of the nation's strictest laws regarding teenage use.

The Indoor Tanning Association, which could not be reached to comment, has said that alleged health dangers are exaggerated "in order to get the attention of the public, the media and the government" and that "nonburning exposure is essential for good health."

"Sixteen- or 17-year-olds can drive cars, get married, own guns, hunt and secure birth control and abortion services, yet if these laws pass, they would not be allowed to suntan, even if their parents approved," the group said.

The trade group spends $5,000 per month lobbying in Albany. A New York City-area suntan company separately has been spending $9,000 a month.

One of the state's largest indoor tanning companies -- Tanning Bed -- is based in West Seneca. In the last four years, the company has donated nearly $18,000 to various, mostly Republican interests, including $5,000 to the Erie County Republican Party, and separate donations to Republican State Sens. Michael H. Ranzenhofer of Amherst, Patrick M. Gallivan of Elma and Mark J. Grisanti of Buffalo.

The company's president, Daniel J. Humiston, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican, said that about 10 percent of his gross sales at his 31 stores came from teens 18 and younger. He said 80 percent of his more than 300 employees are younger than 18. Humiston said that New York already heavily regulates the tanning industry and that he pays $32,000 in various state fees annually.

The tanning salon owner said his industry is also still reeling from the recession and now is facing criticism from health groups who he said are giving an "irresponsible" message that any sun exposure is bad. "That's a dangerous message to send because there are many benefits to ultralight exposure," he said.

Indoor tanning industry officials say the proposed law is another example of nanny government. "My 16-year-old can get an abortion without my permission. If this passes, she can't get a tan even if I wanted her to," Humiston said. "That seems like such hypocrisy."

Another area company, Total Tan, has donated $3,000 in the last year, including $1,000 apiece to Grisanti and Ranzenhofer and $1,000 to Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx.

Grisanti said he opposes the proposed ban.

"I don't think we need governmental interference in parental decisions," Grisanti said.

"At 16, you can drive a car. At 17 or 18, you can make a decision on your own whether you want to go to a tanning salon, if you have parental consent. I think that's sufficient."

Ranzenhofer agreed and noted the indoor tanning season is now busy because of high school proms.

"If parents want to allow their 18-year-old daughter to tan before she goes to a prom or if they want to allow tanning of their family before they take a trip to a warmer climate so they don't get burnt to a crisp, I think that's a decision that should be made by the family," he said.

Is indoor tanning safe?

Ranzenhofer responded that federal health agencies have not banned the practice. "Like with any product that's abused, there's going to be risk," he said, but not for those who practice indoor tanning "reasonably and safely and with parents involved for children."

Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., a Long Island Republican and sponsor of the bill, said he has heard overwhelming support for the measure, including from groups representing doctors, public health officials and insurance companies. He said the bill has been reported out of the Senate Health Committee and is ready for a floor vote.

"Hopefully, in the next six weeks the Senate will take it up," said Fuschillo, who pointed to an American Academy of Pediatrics study that found some indoor tanning units can be up to 15 times more powerful than the midday sun.

California bans indoor tanning for teens younger than 18, and Vermont is discussing such a ban.

Health groups dismissed the argument from indoor tanning advocates that jobs would be lost if the teen ban is enacted.

The Cancer Society's Sciandra said, "I don't think giving people cancer is a viable business model."

email: tprecious@buffnews.com