Testimonials Boost Tanning Bed Legislation Initiatives

By Vallerie A. Malkin

Melanoma is commonly thought of as a disease of the elderly because its prevalence is so great in our older populations: A lifetime sun exposure catches up to many people in their later years.

However, thanks to indoor tanning devices—and a youthful glee over baking oneself bronze prior to vacations and special events–an increasing number of younger people have been diagnosed with melanoma. In fact, it is the second most common cancer for men and the third most common cancer for women ages 20-39.

Not worth your life

Countless men, women, boys, and girls have bought the marketing messaging put forth by the tanning bed industry that indoor tanning is a “safe” alternative to outdoor sunbathing.

But research shows that indoor tanning may be even more dangerous than exposure to the sun, because the devices may emit UV radiation up to 15 times the strength of the midday summer sun. In fact, if you started indoor tanning before the age of 35, you’ve increased your melanoma risk by 59 percent—and the risk increases with each use. Even more startling is the fact that women younger than 30 are six times more likely to develop melanoma if they tan indoors.

Simply put, exposure to UV radiation—either via indoor tanning or the sun—damages the DNA in skin cells. If enough DNA damage builds up over time, it can cause cells to start growing out of control, which can lead to melanoma.

These are facts no sane person can ignore, but sadly, many people aren’t even aware of them. Bottom line: Indoor tanning is not a safe alternative to outdoor tanning—quite the opposite.

She knew what it was right away

Katie Shepherd of Leaksville, Mississippi was just 34 when she was diagnosed with melanoma after noticing a suspicious mole under her breast. A self-described hypochondriac, Shepherd knew all about melanoma. “I had looked at the pictures online,” says Shepherd, “and I knew from the pictures it was probably melanoma. The lack of symmetry, the color – everything matched up.”

She also knew exactly how she developed it. In college, she and her roommate discovered indoor tanning, and Shepherd continued to tan year-round into her early 30s, up until her first child was born. She didn’t have any more time for tanning after that.

When she received her diagnosis, Shepherd admits to being terrified that she would not be around to raise her three small children. But her prognosis was good: She was staged at zero and her cancerous mole was successfully removed.

Shepherd knew she had dodged a bullet. She also knew she would join the fight to prevent other young people from unknowingly risking a cancer diagnosis through indoor tanning.

Lofty goals: A ban in every state

AIM leads the nationwide fight against indoor tanning, and works alongside volunteers, survivors, healthcare providers, and other cancer organizations in every state.

One of AIM’s signature goals is to ban indoor tanning for individuals under 18 in all 50 states. Thus far, 17 states and the District of Columbia have a full under 18 ban, and an additional two, Oregon and Washington, have partial bans due to “medical exceptions,” a notion that is completely lost on Samantha Guild, AIM’s Director of Education, Public Policy and Advocacy at AIM since 2008.

“How can tanning devices—with the all the devastating connections to melanoma—have a medical exception?” asks Guild. “What medical need could exist?”

But AIM continues with its goal of purity in the legislation: AIM will not count any state where anything but a full ban on indoor tanning for minors is enacted; so AIM wants to revisit Oregon and Washington at a later date to pursue a full ban—no medical exceptions.

According to Guild, AIM decided early on to pursue tanning bed legislation at the state level because of the sluggish pace with which bills move in Washington D.C. and the competition with other high-level legislative priorities.

Guild says the process of seeking indoor tanning bans for minors had been slow and painstaking until 2011, when AIM played a lead role in the successful passage of legislation in California, the first state to ban indoor tanning for minors. After California, AIM turned its attention to other states, such as Texas, which passed a ban in 2013. But the fight continues: 33 states still allow minors to risk their lives in these devices.

The indomitable spirit of Charlie Guild

“It takes incredible amounts of patience to get from ‘Nice to meet you’ to ‘Yes, we will present this bill’” says Guild, who along with her mother, AIM Founder & President Valerie Guild, oversees AIM’s legislative efforts.

Samantha Guild stays focused on AIM’s goal to ban indoor tanning in every state for children under 18 in large part because of the compelling narrative that is at the root of the organization: Sam and her mother are fueled to work so hard by the memory of Sam’s younger sister, Charlie Guild, who lost her fight with melanoma when she was just 26.

Getting legislators to support a cause is difficult, given the competing priorities of each state, according to Guild. Many factors affect whether a legislator will take on the bill, refuse it, or postpone a discussion about it. It’s hit or miss, explains Guild.

When approaching legislators, being prepared is a necessity, and so AIM comes armed with studies that show the link between indoor tanning device use and melanoma, national and global melanoma statistics, and information on the incidence rate of that particular state.

Guild researches tanning venues in the state and the current laws around usage. She figures out the number of people diagnosed in the state, as well as the death rate. She finds out who the tanning industry lobbyists are and how influential they are deemed to be.

Red states tend to be more business-friendly than blue states, although Guild notes encouragingly that support for indoor tanning bans for minors tends to be bi-partisan (remember: Texas).

A favorite story of Guild’s to share about how “no” became “yes” in a few short minutes involves a Kansas legislator, a doctor.

Guild had contacted him by email about introducing an indoor tanning ban bill. She figured his career as a doctor positioned him well to understand the serious health ramifications of tanning beds. She had given him her phone number.

She was pleased and surprised when he called her—that doesn’t always happen—and listened carefully to what AIM was trying to do. After Guild’s elevator pitch, he offered his carefully considered input: “This will never make it to the floor,” she recalls him saying. Before he ended the call, he had one last comment—really a question: “Can I just ask, Why this issue?”

That’s when the story of Charlie Guild tumbled out of her sister’s mouth. It was not something Guild was accustomed to doing—she tries to stay focused on action items and making forward progress, not on her sister’s tragic death. But not this time. He asked the question, and the flood gates opened.

Charlie was not an indoor tanner, but she had the type of fair skin that is susceptible to the disease. A spirited, highly intelligent and compassionate young woman, she had plans for a career in medicine so she could help others.

But her life was cut short by melanoma, and Sam explained how AIM was determined to reduce the number of preventable melanomas—those linked to indoor tanning in the teen years.

Perhaps the doctor was a father himself; perhaps it was the preventable death message. But he connected with the story and decided to accept Sam Guild’s proposal.

“It’s gonna die in committee,” he again told her, “but I’ll introduce the bill and we’ll have a hearing.”

It was not instantaneous, but because the bill was able to be presented, seven years later Kansas became another state that banned indoor tanning for minors. That’s just how the process rolls, suggests Guild. But roll it did, and Kansas was added to the list of successes.

Testimonials work

“We will not stop until we have banned indoor tanning for minors in all 50 states,” says Valerie Guild, who has given the indoor tanning lobby a run for its money over the last 15 years—indeed, the Indoor Tanning Lobby Association went bankrupt fighting her.

Val Guild believes that success moving legislation forward is due to the efforts of volunteers who write letters; the medical community that provides data on the link between melanoma and indoor tanning; and survivors who share their stories.

Like Katie Shepherd. Katie was so grateful she dodged a huge bullet with her early stage melanoma that she immediately had the desire to pay her luck forward and became an advocate.

Last month, Shepherd and her husband went to the Mississippi state capitol in Jackson to give testimony with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in support of a new bill introduced to ban people under 18 from using indoor tanning devices.

MS State Representative Doug Mcleod, Katie Shepherd, Christopher Shepherd, MS Senator Dennis DeBar at Mississippi State Capitol.

“I have to do what I have to do to protect my children,” Shepherd told legislators. “Being tan is not worth your life.”

Natural skin rocks!

AIM at Melanoma launched “Natural Skin Rocks” to bring the message home to young women that natural skin is beautiful, and it especially looks beautiful because it is healthy. The campaign touches on many aspects of natural skin, but among them is the fact that un-tanned skin looks younger and more supple when a person ages.

Finally, it asks young women especially to consider balking at the societal trend toward changing our natural skin color: Natural Skin Rocks want all of us to love the skin we are born in and not try to change it, especially since using an indoor tanning device risks melanoma—and death.

Has melanoma due to indoor tanning touched your life? Share your story and help AIM write letters to legislators about the risk of melanoma posed by tanning bed use. Want to join us in the fight to pass indoor tanning bed legislation for children under 18? Contact Director of Education, Public Policy, and Advocacy Sam Guild at AIM at Melanoma: ph: 916-706-0599; e: sguild@AIMatMelanoma.org for details.


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