Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in humans, and within the U.S. more than 9,100 men and women die each year from melanomas of the skin. That puts it among the top-10 deadliest forms of cancer, ranking 6th overall for whites.
Given the seriousness of the threat and the direct link between skin cancer and exposure to ultraviolet light, one would think that young Americans would shy away from indoor tanning. Sunlight is dangerous enough. But demand for tanning beds remains high.
One can argue that as long as adults are properly informed of the risk of indoor tanning, they should be allowed to make that choice — much as smokers are still legally allowed to purchase and use tobacco products. But minors are another question. And unfortunately, Maryland has failed to adequately protect youngsters from the risk of skin cancer.
Except for Howard County, which banned the use of tanning beds by minors in 2009 (unless they have a doctor's prescription which is, in a word, unlikely), Maryland allows tanning by minors with parental consent. The consent requirement is a helpful roadblock to teen tanning and was strengthened last month by a revised form that spells out the risk in greater detail.
"Indoor tanning can cause skin cancer," the new consent form points out. "Skin cancer can be fatal. To reduce the risk of skin cancer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 18 never use tanning devices."
Not one sentence in that statement is arguable. If anything, it undersells the risk, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control acknowledges that young people are in greater danger of developing cancer from exposure to indoor tanning than their parents are. People who begin tanning before the age of 35 are at a 59 percent greater risk of developing skin cancer, according to the CDC.
So why allow minors to use indoor tanning beds at all? We are waiting to hear a good answer — aside from protecting the profits of indoor tanning operators and serving the vanity of youngsters who think they look better with a tan. Certainly, the public is exposed to much misinformation about tanning — that it's needed to get Vitamin D (eating properly is better) or that indoor tanning is safer than outdoor (UV light is dangerous no matter the source) — but the reality is that indoor tanning puts teens at greater risk of developing cancer later in life.
A growing number of states have chosen to ban indoor tanning for minors over the last several years — California, Illinois, Nevada, Texas and Vermont, while 33 states and the District of Columbia, Maryland included, regulate the practice in some manner.
We think an outright ban is a better choice. Despite the various forms of restrictions nationwide, teens continue to talk their parents into giving permission to tan. According to the CDC, nearly one-third of high school girls in their senior year reported indoor tanning in a 2011 survey.
Libertarians may bemoan the danger of the "nanny state," but the fact that states allow parental consent for indoor tanning at all suggests it's not regarded as all that serious a threat. After all, we don't allow parents to sign consent forms allowing their children to buy cigarettes at the corner store or order alcoholic drinks at the neighborhood tavern. Ultimately, it's up to government to protect the basic health and safety of the public, particularly for people under the age of 18.
Recently, the Maryland State Medical Society, MedChi, endorsed stronger restrictions on indoor tanning for minors as one of their priorities for the 2014 legislative session. We agree. The Maryland General Assembly should approve a ban on indoor tanning by minors, a measure strongly opposed by the indoor tanning industry that died in committee last year.
Obviously, such a ban won't eliminate the risk of skin cancer for children who are still capable of becoming overexposed to the sun. But it would surely be helpful — and send a strong message to adults that indoor tanning is unhealthy, too. Given that the treatment of skin cancer costs an estimated $1.7 billion annually, according to a study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reducing melanoma ought to be a high priority for everyone.
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