What California should do on indoor tanning

Adam Sturtevant prepares to slip into a tanning bed at the California Sun Center in Sacramento.
Adam Sturtevant prepares to slip into a tanning bed at the California Sun Center in Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

In just more than a year, my thirty-something patient sprouted 13 skin cancers: a baker’s dozen. It seemed an apt number, because he had literally cooked his skin in indoor tanning beds during his twenties. His skin cancers were not life-threatening, but caused substantial anxiety, scarring and financial stress.

His indoor tanning habit is not uncommon in California. It’s time the state stepped up efforts to drastically decrease its use.

First, California should raise the minimum age to 21, just as it is for buying cigarettes and booze, then enforce it. Now, no state agency actually enforces the under-18 restriction on indoor tanning, the first in the nation when imposed in 2012.

Second, the state should beef up enforcement of prohibitions on false advertising. In a 2010 settlement, the indoor tanning industry’s trade association agreed to stop making false health and safety claims, including assertions that indoor tanning was “approved by the government” and “safer than outdoor tanning.” But marketing problems persist. Misleading health claims will likely stop only if those making them are held accountable.

Third, California should tax indoor tanning. The federal government imposes a 10 percent excise tax, but many tanning parlors fail to pay. Not only could a hefty state tax diminish demand, but funds collected could also underwrite anti-indoor tanning campaigns, modeled on anti-smoking efforts. Businesses that lose revenue due to increased taxes and regulations could instead market safer products and services, including spray tans and sunless tanning products.

Indoor tanning increases the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, which this year will kill more than 10,000 Americans. The younger people start, the greater the danger. Indoor tanning can also damage the eyes, prematurely age the skin and cause allergic reactions. And there’s no upside; it’s not a safe way to boost vitamin D levels, which pills can do more safely and inexpensively.

In 2014, the surgeon general took aim at indoor tanning to help prevent skin cancer and the Food and Drug Administration required stronger warnings and safety features and has proposed banning their use by minors. Indoor tanning before age 18 is already prohibited in 11 other states and the District of Columbia.

Indoor tanning’s dangers are also recognized worldwide. The World Health Organization classifies indoor tanning as a carcinogen. Brazil and Australia have banned indoor tanning, and numerous European countries prohibit indoor tanning by minors.

California can and should do more to stop residents from getting burned, literally and figuratively, by indoor tanning.

Kenneth A. Katz is a dermatologist in San Francisco who previously worked at local and federal public health agencies. He can be contacted at