Sparks Fly At Hearing On Kansas Bill To Ban Teen Tanning

Feb 10, 2016

A legislative hearing Tuesday on a bill to prohibit Kansans under 18 from using commercial tanning beds produced emotional testimony from cancer victims and sharp exchanges between lawmakers and the proposal’s lone opponent.

And it seemed clear by the hearing’s end that the bill had the support of several lawmakers who normally would be troubled by the prospect of regulating private businesses.

“Just listening to the questions, you pretty well get where everybody is coming from,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, the Wichita Republican who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee. “So, I would say it will probably pass out in fine fashion.”

Hawkins and other members of the panel said testimony from two cancer survivors helped make the case for the bill, which would make it illegal for salon owners to allow anyone under 18 to use their ultraviolet beds. He said the testimony delivered by melanoma survivors Amy Holdman of Overland Park  and Marcie Kelly of Wichita “touched the hearts” of members.

“It’s hard to discredit testimony like that,” he said.

But Joseph Levy tried.

Levy is the “scientific adviser” to the American Suntanning Association, a group formed by salon owners in 2012 to fight efforts to regulate the industry. He’s also executive director of the International Smart Tan Network.

“The case that’s been made (against indoor tanning) goes well beyond the facts,” Levy said, referring to information compiled by the American Cancer Action Network, the lobbying arm of the American Cancer Society, as well as the testimony given by doctors and cancer victims in support of the Kansas bill.

Levy questioned the legitimacy of studies that show the use of tanning beds, particularly by teenagers and young adults, greatly increases the chances of developing skin cancer. He said because the studies included high-intensity tanning devices used by doctors and hospitals, they overstated the risks of using salon beds. He said many doctors agree that moderate use of tanning beds to acquire a “base tan” can help protect people from the real health hazard: sunburn.

“Sunburn prevention is what we should be focusing on,” he said.

Several members of the committee pushed back. Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said Levy’s testimony reminded him of the “specious” arguments made by the tobacco companies.

Dr. Roy Jensen, director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center, said in an interview after the hearing that Ward “nailed it” when he compared Levy’s arguments to those used by the tobacco industry.

“It just drives you crazy when somebody devotes their life to spewing out a bunch of garbage,” Jensen said. “And it’s even worse when it harms people.”

Marcie Kelly said she routinely tanned to get ready for big dances in high school, logging hours in tanning beds before each one.

Fifteen years later her doctor noticed a suspicious mole on her back. Tests confirmed it was metastatic melanoma, skin cancer that had spread to her lymph system.

Surgeons acted quickly to remove the cancer from her back.

“It looked like somebody had taken a shark bite out of my back,” she said, before going on to describe the chemotherapy she endured to kill the cancer in her lymph nodes.

Now, two years from diagnosis and treatment, Kelly worries that one of the full-body scans that she gets every three months will show that the cancer is back. She described her life as “holding my breath and living scan to scan.”

“Melanoma has robbed me of who I was,” she said.

Several members of the committee thanked Kelly and Holdman for sharing their stories. But a few said they were troubled by the bill.

Rep. Brett Hildabrand, a Shawnee Republican, said he worried that prohibiting teenagers from using commercial facilities might prompt them to engage in unsupervised use of tanning beds in their homes or those of friends and neighbors. He asked Jensen of the KU Cancer Center if instead of prohibiting minors from tanning, the bill could require them to get written consent from their parents.

“I always have a problem with government acting as the parent and taking parental decisions away,” Hildabrand said.

Jensen said that any parent who consented would essentially be guilty of child abuse.

“If you’re allowing your child to be in a tanning bed, that’s pretty much the definition of physical abuse,” he said.

In addition, Jensen said, parental consent laws don’t work well because they put the enforcement burden on business owners.

Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.