The latest effort to ban indoor tanning for anyone under 18 years old in New York is being framed by the deep, 6-inch scars on the abdomens, faces and necks of skin cancer victims.
Blonde, blue-eyed Kim Connor of Mechanicville said she always protected her fair skin with sunscreen growing up. At 50, and busy at her human resources office job, she turned to tanning booths for a "base tan." It was just a few weeks of minutes-long, daily sessions before visits to relatives in Arizona and Florida. Four years later, she had skin cancer.
"My scars are very long and deep because the surgeon needs to make sure they get it all so it does not reach your organs," she said Thursday with the American Cancer Society and other advocates warning teens. "If it reaches your organs, then you need to go to oncology and start the process of chemotherapy and the outlook at this point is not good."
Now she can't drive with her window open to the sun, can't run outside with her dogs and grandchildren without covering up, and has to watch outdoor shows and events from the shade. Despite daily checks and frequent follow-up exams, she constantly wonders: "Did I miss something?"
The tanning-booth industry says groups like the American Cancer Society mix advocacy and science with outrage over media portrayals such as the heavily tanned mother in New Jersey — dubbed "tanorexic" by the tabloids — who is accused of causing skin burns to her young daughter in a tanning booth, and the "gym, tanning, laundry" mantra of "Jersey Shore."
John Overstreet, spokesman for the national Indoor Tanning Association, said today's tanning booths mimic the sun at noon, and the equipment is the same that dermatologists use for patients with psoriasis or acne. He said tanning booths also counter a widespread deficiency in vitamin D, which national health studies have deemed an epidemic that should be countered with "reasonable" time in sunshine.
"Obviously, there are people who should avoid the sun," Overstreet said. "So it's a question of moderation, which is best for you. ... this is exactly the same as being outside, but it is a more controlled environment. You know exactly what you get."
Health advocates agree the sun is the biggest danger, but indoor tanning can be regulated and youths must be protected, as with driving restrictions and bans on alcohol. New York now is among at least a half-dozen states that bars it for children under 14, and it currently requires parental permission for tanners 14 to 17 years old.
Overstreet argues that if the ban is enacted, teenagers will tan outdoors, without the oversight of parents or staff who are required to have state training.
Russ Sciandra of the American Cancer Society is pushing New York to join California to ban people under 18 from tanning booths, the age group he said is increasingly seeking the bronzed look prevalent on TV actors and models, especially during the spring prom season.
He said that over 10 years, the number of melanoma cancer cases in New York rose 72 percent as tanning salons exploded in malls and shopping centers nationwide. He said 76,250 new melanoma cases are expected to be diagnosed nationwide this year, with 4,700 new cases in New York. He said 440 of those people will die, citing state health department studies.
"The use of tanning booths at an early age, at least for some, leads to chronic use," said Sciandra, who has led the Cancer Society's fight for tougher anti-smoking laws in New York. "There is evidence of an addiction process and I don't use that word lightly."
In 2009, tanning devices were classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization.
The chances of the bill are better than ever, with strong majority sponsors Harvey Weisenberg in the Assembly and Charles Fuschillo in the Senate. Obstacles include many lawmakers' concerns against "nanny state" laws that they say overregulate people, as well as the impact on small businesses and jobs.
"When the science isn't there, then the business issue should have impact because this is how people put food on their table," Overstreet said.