The Golden Tan: An Uncertain Risk to Teens

"So a teenager can have an abortion but not get a tan without her parent's consent?"

Patrick Moroney, a Rockland County, N.Y, legislator, said this in The New York Times after his county passed a law that banned anyone under 16 from using a tanning salon, and restricted 16- and 17-year-olds from tanning salons if they didn't have a signed parental consent form.

His county, and many other cities and states across the United States, have taken a hard line against tanning salons, a $5 billion industry.

Moroney's powerful statement, however, illustrates the current hot debate about these new laws, which vary widely in their severity.

On one hand, there's growing but still inconclusive evidence linking the use of tanning beds to skin cancer, and the belief that teenagers, who are by nature risk-takers, should be protected from this threat.

On the other hand, critics say, even if tanning is dangerous, creating more laws to control teen behavior is unlikely to work, so perhaps the issue is best left a private discussion among parents and their teens.

Medical ethicists and women who have used tanning salons seem to agree that while tanning is not the greatest threat posed to teens, it's also not harmless.

So, when asked what they thought should be done, most of them said that the fairest compromise might be to post warning signs at tanning salons. They also said that parents and educators should be encouraged to discuss the risks of sun exposure with teens.

"I think for many things we need to post a warning and on others allow more freedom," said Dr. Stephen Lefrak, director of Humanities at the Washington University School of Medicine. "Tanning, while it may increase skin cancer, certainly is not as damaging as tobacco smoke or uncommitted immature sex."

The posting of signs -- similar to the warning labels on cigarettes -- allow for people to make independent but informed decisions, said Rosamond Rhodes, a medical education professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"Signs serve as liberty-promoting education," she said.

One-time tanning salon enthusiast Rachel Schaefer echoed those sentiments, but she added that parental consent should be required, as well.

"I know I never used sunscreen," said Schaefer, who works in fundraising and development in St. Paul, Minn. "Teenagers or minors are more likely to make a reckless decision."

Rachel's Story

Schaefer said she repeatedly visited tanning salons in high school and during her early years of college.

As she got older, she grew more concerned about the long-term effects of tanned skin and stopped going, except maybe once or twice a year.

"There is a strong vanity pull, just like wearing the latest jeans," she said, also noting that the long, sunless winters of the upper Midwest made tanning beds even more appealing.

"My roommates used to laugh about this. It was like our crack addiction. It was so cheap, $4 to $5. We would go all the time."

Schaefer said she hadn't had any serious skin problems. Another former tanning-salon user, Brittany Lietz, 21, said she fully believed that her frequent salon tanning in high school had caused her to develop melanoma, an issue she now talks about publicly as Miss Maryland 2006.

'Nothing but Scars'

Lietz has an 8-inch-long scar along her back, where cancer was removed last year, and she has since undergone about 20 more surgeries to remove suspicious lesions all over her body.

While she supports the efforts of lawmakers to restrict teens' access to tanning salons, she said education would probably go the farthest to swaying public opinion.

So, along with studying to be a nurse, she frequently talks to teens about skin cancer.

"It's such a vain disease to have. You go from wanting to be pretty and then having surgery all the time and getting nothing but scars," she said.

Still, the widespread preference for tanned skin means she uses sunless tanning products before a pageant competition -- an ironic but more mature solution to using a tanning salon, she said.

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