Indoor tanning industry officials, salon owners and their supporters packed a Howard County Health Department conference room Tuesday night to argue against a ban on teens under 18 using the electric beds, but to no avail.
Although not outnumbered, the tanning fans were verbally outgunned by a series of physicians, anti-cancer advocacy groups and personal stories of cancer survivors, and the result was one of the quickest and most absolute bans on a public activity in county history, though a tanning industry lobbyist is threatening a lawsuit.
The result after a public hearing that lasted two and a half hours before about 100 people was an immediate, unanimous vote by the nine volunteer members of the county's Board of Health to prohibit children under 18 from using indoor tanning beds unless they have a prescription from a doctor. The new regulations were to take effect Thursday, and make Howard the first locality in the nation to adopt such a ban, county officials said. Board members had been studying the issue since county health officer Dr. Peter L. Beilenson announced his proposal Sept. 22.
The Baltimore County Council is considering a nearly identical law, though that bill provides a criminal penalty for violations, while Howard's regulations use civil law.
Several speakers at the hearing drew comparisons between the cancer dangers of indoor tanning by minors and laws banning tobacco use, though tanning boosters argued the activity boosts Vitamin D, which, they said helps prevent far more cancers. Advocates for the ban said skin cancer in young women aged 18-34 is up 50 percent since 1984.
Beilenson led off the hearing by telling the board that "indoor tanning is quite simply bad for you." He called scientific arguments to the contrary "junk science. Don't let the tanning industry play games with the science as tobacco did before them," he said. Board members appeared to accept that.
"I feel this whole issue is based on a preponderance of scientific evidence," said board chairman Robert Sheesley, a former director of Baltimore County's Department of the Environment. Sheesley said he had used indoor tanning beds as a youth. "I've had numerous pre-cancerous conditions," in later life, he said.
Other board members said they considered the impact on tanning salon business owners and arguments that Maryland's new law requiring parental permission in person for minors to tan indoors is enough protection, but ultimately rejected them.
"Even if we are able to save one life it seems to me worthwhile," said board member Sue Song, who also said she's no fan of unnecessary governmental controls.
"We don't give our children permission to drink or smoke," added board member Vanessa Foreman-Islam. Approving the ban is "the safest bet" given the evidence of rising skin cancers, especially among young women.
Howard's regulatory route using the Board of Health rather than council legislation brought the threat of lawsuit from Bruce Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist representing the Indoor Tanning Association. Bereano argued that the board had no authority for the action, and that there wasn't enough evidence that tanning salons are either a "nuisance" or a "cause of disease" as defined by law.
"We cannot stand by and allow this to happen," Bereano said.
But Sheesley said the board had plenty of advice to the contrary from both the county office of law and the Maryland Attorney General's office.
Dr. Bernard Cohen, director of Pediatric Dermatology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, said "Now is the time to put real teeth into this law."
But Mark Bruce, 49, of Sykesville, who owns five tanning salons — though none in Howard — said he's been in the business for over 20 years and knows that controlled indoor tanning does no harm. If people with the fairest skin or a history of cancer in their family are screened out, the chances of being harmed by indoor tanning are nil, he said.
"I had to learn the science of tanning beds and prove to myself that I'm not killing people," he said.
Advocates like William Grant, a physicist who heads the Nutrition Health Research Center in San Francisco, argued that recent World Health Organization studies that declared indoor tanning a definite cancer risk were "biased".
"The risk is from recreational use at the beach without protection," Grant said.
Joe Levy, Vice President of the Smart Tan Institute, an industry group, said that indoor tanning can help prevent outdoor sunburn and that the Vitamin D gains can help prevent the comeback of diseases like Rickets.
Melissa Moore, 28, who owns Bodyworks Tannery in Elkridge, said teens are a small part of her business, but they'll just go to other counties to get their pre-prom tans in the spring. The ban will have an opposite effect than intended, she argued, adding that she tans two to three times a week, and started doing that at age 16 with no ill effects.