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Teen Tanning Has Dermatologists Turning up the Heat

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Do American teens need to be protected from their obsession with tanning?

Crusading dermatologists say yes, state lawmakers are beginning to crack down, the tanning industry is on the defensive, and makers of sunless tan products are hoping to lure more teens to their doors.

Teens, as every parent knows, think they're immortal -- and they love to tan. Not a good combination, dermatologists say.

Despite the growing popularity of sunless spray-on tanning, surveys show that about half of teens ages 13 to 19 have used a UV tanning bed or booth at least once. Meanwhile, artificial tanning has grown to a $5 billion-a-year industry, with up to 30,000 salons around the country. Industry leaders, peeved at possible increased government regulation, say that their products are safe and that fewer than 5% of their clients are young teens.

But dermatologists and the American Cancer Society are stepping up their efforts to persuade teenagers to abandon their sun-loving ways. Their motivation: 1 million new skin cancer cases diagnosed in the USA each year, and more than 7,000 deaths a year from melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

''Our prevention message is not working,'' says James Spencer, chairman of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan and a leader of the American Academy of Dermatology's anti-UV tanning brigade. ''We're seeing more skin cancer overall, and we're seeing it in younger and younger people.''

At least 13 states, including Texas, have enacted laws to regulate teen tanning, typically requiring a parent's presence or written parental consent before kids under 18 can use a bed or booth exposing them to ultraviolet rays. In California, a bill in the Legislature would ban anyone under 18 from UV tanning except with a doctor's prescription. (Some skin diseases, such as psoriasis and eczema, can be treated with UV light.) A bill under review in Maryland would require a prescription along with a parent's consent and presence.

The tanning industry is aghast at such proposals.

''Absolutely ludicrous,'' says Rhonda Venuto, a spokeswoman for Hollywood Tan's 200 salons, where children 13 and under already are banned from UV tanning. ''We need sunlight to live. When you're tanning in moderation, there's nothing wrong with it.''

Some entrepreneurs hope to turn teens on to sunless tanning, in which a machine sprays on a product that stains the skin, leaving the appearance of a tan that lasts four to six days. Most salons now offer both UV and spray-on tanning, but industry officials say younger clients overwhelmingly prefer UV tanning, which is usually cheaper.

''The spray-on tans tend to be more popular with women 25-49, with a median age of 40, compared with a median age of 30 with the beds,'' says Tony Passarello of Palm Beach Tan, which offers both options in its 60 salons.

Maybe teens don't like the ''fake bake'' look, or maybe UV tanning seems more like old-fashioned lying-in-the-sun tanning to them. Surveys show they are aware that excessive tanning is risky.

''When you're young, you think you're invincible and that when you're 40, your life will be over anyway,'' says Jennifer Flavin-Stallone, who is selling her Jet Tan Airbrush Tanning System, an at-home tanner that goes for less than $100.

She touts her product as a time saver, money saver and maybe even a lifesaver if it turns teens away from the ultraviolet life. ''I believe in scaring kids, showing them what it looks like when a 25-year-old is dying of skin cancer.''

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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