By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Lawmakers in Idaho and 17 other states are following the lead of California as they consider new restrictions on the use of tanning beds by teenagers to stem rising rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
One such measure at the center of a hearing last week by a committee of the Idaho House of Representatives would make it a misdemeanor for anyone under the age of 18 to use an ultraviolet tanning device unless prescribed by a doctor.
Legislation that would outlaw indoor tanning for teens has surfaced across the nation, including statehouses in Arizona, Illinois and New York, just weeks after the first such ban went into effect in California.
Exposure to ultraviolet radiation, either from the sun or through such artificial means as sunlamps and tanning beds, increases the risk of developing skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.
And UV exposure or sunburn at an early age, especially by fair-skinned people, heightens the risk for melanoma.
Melanoma rates have been rising for the past three decades, the American Cancer Society says. Recent data by the cancer institute shows that it is the most common form of cancer for Americans aged 15 to 29.
Those increases have coincided with the growing popularity of tanning parlors, particularly among teens and young women.
An estimated 28 million people -- including 2.3 million teens -- tan themselves indoors in the United States each year. Nearly 70 percent of tanning salon patrons are white girls and women, mostly between the ages of 16 and 29, the American Academy of Dermatology Association reports.
The recent push to restrict or ban artificial tanning among teens has been spurred by recommendations of federal and international health agencies to discourage young people from the practice because of melanoma risks.
The dermatology association cites evidence from seven peer-reviewed studies in finding a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma among people who use tanning devices before age 35.
Opponents of indoor tanning, including the association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, said California's ban has bolstered a nationwide campaign against teen tanning.
Yet detractors acknowledge they are taking aim at a practice that has only grown in popularity since its introduction in the 1970s in the United States, where sun-kissed skin still sets a cultural standard for beauty.
"The fact that a ban passed there, the home of California girls and their tans, is a good sign, but it's an uphill battle," said Stephen Stone, past president of the dermatology academy and professor in the division of dermatology at Southern Illinois University.
John Overstreet, head of the Indoor Tanning Association, said the industry backs the parental consent required for teens to use tanning beds in a host of states but believes California has trampled on personal freedoms by dictating policy to parents.
"It's a sign of government out of control," he said. "Parents can tell their children 'no.' We don't need suntan police."
Overstreet said some researchers have overstated the risks posed by indoor tanning while minimizing benefits.
The issue is spurring intense debate in Idaho, a majority Republican state that favors limited government and where the rate of girls aged 14, 16 and 17 using tanning beds far exceeds the national average.
Idaho led the nation from 2001 to 2005 for deaths from melanoma and is still among states with the highest rates of new melanoma diagnoses and deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health and Welfare.
A hearing Thursday on the proposed ban before the state House Health and Welfare Committee drew melanoma survivors like Lisa Winters of Boise, a self-described 15-year veteran of indoor tanning.
Winters told lawmakers she had never tanned in the sun as a teen. In her 30s, she began frequenting tanning salons -- where she purchased sessions for her young daughters -- to achieve the look she admired in supermodels.
"Let me add, it wasn't long before I was tanning seven times a week; you can become addicted," she said.
Brook Taylor, a manager of All Hours International Tanning Distributors near Boise, testified against the proposed restrictions, warning legislators they were contemplating "the most extreme law I've ever seen in a state that has no regulation whatsoever."
Amid the warring opinions about an industry that claims to employ 140,000 people and consist mostly of women operating small businesses are former indoor tanning patrons and workers like Corina French, 19, of Salmon.
French began using tanning beds at age 13 after her girlfriends introduced her to the practice, which she likened to trends in hair, nails and other beauty treatments. She said traffic at the tanning salon where she worked while in high school picked up when teenagers were preparing to attend special events such as proms and homecoming.
French said she had few concerns about skin cancer until it was recently diagnosed in her aunt.
"Now my grandparents and my dad are hounding me about tanning," she said.
Representative John Rusche, the Lewiston, Idaho, Democrat who is the chief sponsor of the legislation, said his aim -- as a state lawmaker and as a pediatrician -- is to protect young people from developing skin cancer.
The committee was expected to vote on the measure on Monday. If approved, the bill would be scheduled for debate by the full House. (Editing by Steve Gorman and Ellen Wulfhorst)