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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Sparks fly at legislative hearing on bill to ban teen tanning

Lawmakers, head of KU Cancer Center take issue with tanning industry lobbyist

By | February 09, 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.

Photo by Jim McLean/KHI News Service Cancer survivors Amy Holdman, left, and Marcie Kelly were among the supporters of a bill to prohibit the use of tanning beds by minors who packed a Tuesday hearing at the Statehouse.

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“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 tanning 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 due to increasing health and safety concerns. 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.”

People like Amy Holdman and Marcie Kelly.

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.

Describing the surgery to remove the cancer Kelly said, "It looked like somebody had taken a shark bite out of my back."

After surgery, Kelly needed months of chemotherapy to kill the cancer in her lymph nodes.

Though the treatments appear to have worked, Kelly said she continues to worry that one of the full-body scans she undergoes 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.

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

- Rep. Brett Hildabrand, a Shawnee Republican

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. 

In addition to quarreling with the science, Levy, the tanning industry lobbyist, said the Kansas bill isn't necessary because the Federal Food and Drug Administration has proposed a rule that would essentially do the same thing. 

Noting that the rule, which the FDA proposed just before the first of the year is still in the public comment stage, Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat, asked: "Am I hearing that you want us to wait on the federal government to move swiftly?"

Picking up on the point, Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, said, "We'll say what's right for Kansas."