SALEM — Across the nation, lawmakers are debating where to draw the line on young teen tanning, considering proposals that would make it illegal to expose minors to ultraviolet rays from sunlamps.
Those who support such a ban say the need is obvious. "Tanning booths, like cigarettes, cause cancer and should be off-limits to teenagers," said Dr. Brian Druker, the director of the Oregon Health & Science University's Knight Cancer Institute.
Opponents characterize such legislation as an overreaction to an exaggerated danger.
"The proponents have overstated the risks," said Joseph Levy, the scientific adviser for the American Suntanning Association, who testified recently before Oregon lawmakers.
The arguments in the state mirror national discussions on the issue, as lawmakers in 25 other states consider bills that would introduce or tighten restrictions on young people tanning, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The pending legislation is in various stages around the U.S. and only a handful of bills have advanced out of their original chambers, the NCSL said.
However, the broad sweep reflects what tanning opponents consider momentum just a year after California and Vermont became the first states to completely ban minors from using indoor sun booths.
More than 30 states regulate indoor tanning for minors with provisions calling for minimum ages and parental consent, but — with the exception of California and Vermont — the rules stop short of an outright ban.
In Oregon, however, House lawmakers took a step in that direction Thursday, advancing a proposal that would bar minors from sunlamps on a 38-18 vote, with support from all Democrats and a handful of Republicans, following an hourlong debate. The bill, which allows for medical exceptions, now heads to the Democrat-controlled state Senate, where supporters say it has a good chance of passing.
Many tanning opponents point to examples such as Katie Donnar, the former Miss Indiana contestant who says years of tanning left her with an aggressive and deadly form of skin cancer — at 17 years old.
Donnar says she began indoor tanning in the sixth grade and continued throughout high school, going as often as four times a week.
"It was for vanity," said Donnar, now 21, on Wednesday. "It was for what I thought was pretty."
The prominent 4-inch scar on the outside of her left leg, created by the surgery that successfully removed the melanoma tumor, has become a visible reminder of her role in the push to keep young people out of tanning beds.
"Policymakers may be the best outlet for making an impact on this," she said, adding that she supports a ban on teen tanning before lawmakers in her state.
But opponents say Donnar's example was the result of excess exposure, proving their point that responsible use is not problematic.
"The issue isn't straightforward," said Levy, who has battled lawmakers over similar legislation in several states.
"The message people need to learn is sunburn prevention," he said last month, testifying before the Oregon Health Care Committee.
The high school and middle school set make up about a fourth of his business, said Kevin Lahmann, owner of Escape Tanning and Salon in Medford. As a result, passage of the bill would have a big impact on his income.
"It should be up to the parents, what to do with their children," said Lahmann. "A lot of things are contributing factors: tanning outdoors, indoors, working in the yard, relaxing by the pool and losing track of time."
Lahmann said he and his staff are SmartTan certified, which means they know how to judge various skin characteristics and put clients under UV rays only for a few minutes, as appropriate, according to the SmartTan website.
The SmartTan organization, he adds, is representing his industry in the state Senate against the bill.
Lahmann acknowledged the bill, supported by many high-level state officials, is likely to pass in the Democratic Senate.
"We try to regulate as best we can, so people don't burn," he said.
Skeptical lawmakers weren't convinced, as one compared Levy to a tobacco industry lobbyist portrayed as a liar in the movie "Thank You for Smoking," which makes the case that cigarette-makers pushed a dangerous product without acknowledging associated health risks. Another legislator flatly accused Ley of twisting facts.
"I think I heard you say that since water is safe, you can't drown," Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, said to Levy during the recent committee hearing.
A Republican sponsor of the bill said he doesn't typically support "nanny-state" legislation but in this case the statistics linking cancer rates to indoor tanning convinced him it's the right thing to do.
"The evidence is compelling and clear," said. Rep. Mark Johnson of Hood River. "It's not intended to be overly intrusive into people's behaviors."
During the debate lawmakers cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that Oregon women diagnosed with melanoma have the highest death rate in the nation.
Opponents, however, say many salon operators already have rules in place that make such laws unnecessary. The provisions will become little more than a drag on local economies, they say.
Statistics show that about 13 percent of high school students use tanning salons, according to the CDC. Among female 12th-graders, that number rises to 32 percent.
"Most girls go to tanning beds in high school for proms and winter formals," said Angie Herriges, an aesthetician in The Dalles. "They want to be tan. That's why I did it."
She, like Donnar, was diagnosed with skin cancer after tanning as teenager and continuing to visit sun booths throughout her 20s.
Herriges said doctors told her she had basal cell carcinoma in her mid-30s. She has since recovered and sworn off sun lamps — but not bronzing. She now operates a spray tan booth, which she says is a safe way for the industry to mitigate expected losses if the bans become law.
Dr. Bud Pierce, president of the Oregon Medical Association, agrees that sprays are a safe way to simulate the effect of sun rays, adding that ultraviolet lamps are not — ever.
"No dose is safe," he said, explaining that medical professionals say young people who use tanning beds are particularly vulnerable to an increased risk of skin cancers.
"When I started 20 years ago, I almost never saw young people with melanoma," he said, adding that he now sees people in their early teens with skin cancer.
"One can never be 100 percent sure that one thing is the sole cause" of cancer, he said. "But certainly multiple researchers have agreed that UV rays are a carcinogen."
John Darling, a freelance writer for the Mail Tribune, contributed to this story.