Kim Casto's skin is a classic, Southern California golden brown. Not burnt, not pale and pasty, her skin looks exactly as she intended it to look. This is not surprising-she does, after all, work at Loma Portal tanning salon California Tans.
The first time Casto climbed into a tanning bed was 10 years ago when she was 15 years old. Even a decade ago she was aware of the risks. But she wasn't deterred. "I never worried about it. I knew it was bad for me, but I never worried," she says. "I don't tan my face any more. I use spray tanner or makeup for my face because I know that the face is the most sensitive area."
While Casto now uses the safer spray-ons, she doesn't see sprays replacing traditional high-wattage tanning beds. "The spray tan is more for events, like if you have a wedding to go to or a reunion, something that you need to get tan fast for," she says. "But I think there are a lot of people that like the real tan that's going to stick with them."
This is precisely what Assemblymember Joe Nation, a Democrat from San Rafael, is worried about-tans and the long-term effects of tans sticking with people. Sighting the dangers of ultraviolet (UV)-radiation tanning beds, Nation introduced what he calls his cancer-prevention bill (Assembly Bill 2193), which would bar anyone 18 or younger from using tanning facilities that emit UV rays.
While members of the tanning industry maintain that the technology is becoming safer and safer, Nation has an army of studies he uses to bolster his case. According to a study in the Archives of Dermatology, more than 2 million U.S. teenagers use tanning beds. Then there is the study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that reported cases of melanoma have increased 60 percent among women ages 15 to 29 since the late '70s. The study also found that certain cancer rates for people who regularly use tanning beds are 2.5 times that of the people who don't.
"When you hear the evidence and when you also understand that UV radiation in a tanning bed is much more dangerous than natural sunlight, you see the importance of the bill," says Nation.
Not only does the tanning industry dispute the claim that tanning beds cause cancer, but Indoor Tanning Association spokesman Jeff Nedelman says that UV is good for people. He says Nation is ignoring studies that suggest controlled exposure to UV is the best remedy for vitamin D deficiencies. Nation "is only telling the fear side of the story," says Nedelman. "If you think about it, a tanning salon is the one place where you are in absolute control of important UV exposure.... Tanning is needed because it's the best catalyst for the body to generate vitamin D, which is essential for good health."
While both sides claim science is on their side, Nation has secured endorsements for his bill from big-name medical groups including the California Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, the American Academy of Dermatology, the California Medical Association and the American Cancer Society.
"The fact of the matter is the tanning industry cannot change physics," says Nation. "It can't change the physics of UV radiation and how that UV radiation penetrates into the skin and causes cell malformations and eventually cancer."
Nation is also angry at the tanning industry because he believes it's actively preying on teenagers much like the tobacco industry has done. Nation is not alone in his belief. One Case Western Reserve University study found that the industry has spent $5 billion on marketing-much of it focused on young people.
But Joy Jones who works at Tan 4 Less in Point Loma doesn't see it. From her observations, tanning is a trend but not one dominated by teens. In the year and half Jones has worked at the tanning salon, she's seen the full spectrum of ages, both genders and a handful of people from different races and ethnicities come in to use the booths.
But even if the industry isn't actively marketing to teens, modern culture seems to be a big promoter of the fashion trend. Jones is quick to point out that Jessica Simpson is a big fan of Mystic Tan-a UV-less spray on. Jones adds that "Jennifer Aniston even owns her own Mystic Tan booth." While Simpson and Aniston are playing it safe, the message is clear: tan equals beauty.
America's infatuation with a bronzed glow has even spawned the bizarre pseudo-psychological term "tanorexic," a word California Tan employee Casto hears at work all the time. "There are a lot of customers that come here on a regular basis that are really dark and you can tell that they've been doing this for years," says Casto. "I think there are a lot of people who don't think they are as dark as they are. I even get like that. If I'm used to being a certain color and then I lose it a little bit, I think that I'm white."
Nation's bill has already had a bumpy go of it. It was passed by the Assembly, voted down in the Senate and is now up for revote as early as next week. But Nation says the bill has easily gained enough momentum to make it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. Nation adds that he's not worried the bill won't be taken seriously by the governor, who has recently criticized lawmakers for frivolous bills."The governor can decide whether it's worth passing a law that will save people's lives, and that's a determination that he has to make," says the Assemblyman. "It's simple-we can either side with the tanning industry that has at stake billions of dollars or we can side with doctors and scientists."