The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that at least 32 states regulate the use of tanning facilities by minors (Tanning Restrictions for Minors - A State-by-State Comparison). Legislation has been proposed in the North Carolina Senate that would restrict the use of tanning beds by anyone under 18 years of age, unless they have a prescription to tan from their physician “specifying the nature of the medical condition requiring the treatment, the number of visits, and the time of exposure for each visit” (Youth Skin Cancer Prevention Act).
Skin cancer is a bad thing, especially melanoma. Excessive ultraviolet light exposure contributes to the risk of skin cancer. Tanning, particularly in children, almost certainly increases skin cancer risk and results in some deaths. But we’re not ready to applaud this legislation.
Is the Government Going Too Far?
Our bias may show here, but it seems to us that we have too much government involvement in our lives and careers already. Jumping on the “let’s use government to protect people” bandwagon may seem like a great way to help prevent some skin cancers, but doing so plays into the general overuse of government to replace personal responsibility. Would we have the government restrict beach vacations, short sleeve shirts and bare heads? Will we soon need a prescription from our physician allowing us to eat a hamburger — a prescription that would need to specify what condition was being treated (presumably hunger), the size of the hamburger patty and how many could be eaten monthly?
Perhaps the folly of this enterprise would be clearer if the comparison was government regulation to protect patients from physicians — say our use of microscopes to do clinical laboratory tests like diagnosing fungus or scabies? Oh, wait, they already regulate that. Perhaps the government should restrict patients from having cosmetic surgical procedures: procedures that entail risk but provide only a perceived cosmetic benefit — just like tanning.
A Call for Personal Responsibility
Carl Zeiss lenses are purported to be some of the best in the world. They have excellent brightness and near-perfect clarity and they render objects precisely. Unfortunately, the force of government is more kaleidoscopic. The images are seductive, sometimes beautifully surreal, but may represent a compromised truth. It is prudent to remember that with kaleidoscopes, your worldview can change with a tiny twist — a new vision of order is instantly born. Care should be taken in releasing ourselves from the burden of self actualization and giving that duty willingly to the force of law; from such behavior, the road to serfdom is paved.
We don’t write this because we want to encourage people to tan. We think tanning is bad and causes skin cancer. There’s a role that government and physicians can play to educate consumers about the risks of tanning, but we think children and their parents ought to engage in some personal responsibility. While dermatology as a specialty may take great pride in helping pass legislation that protects children from skin cancer, the cost of furthering the slide away from personal responsibility may not be worth the benefit.
Dr. Feldman is with the Center for Dermatology Research and the Departments of Dermatology, Pathology and Public Health Sciences at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC.
Dr. Williford is a Professor of Dermatology at Wake Forest University School of Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC.