03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Senate's Proposed Tax on Indoor Tanning: Potential Lifesaver and Fundraiser

Many do not realize that skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the United States, accounting for more than 1 million new cases annually and costing billions of dollars to detect and treat. The American Cancer Society estimates that skin cancer is also responsible for approximately 12,000 US deaths annually.

For young women aged 15-29 years, rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have increased more than 60% since the mid 1970s. Indoor tanning salons, where the majority of customers are not coincidentally fair-skinned women aged 16-29 years, have become increasingly popular during this same time period. The indoor tanning industry grew from a $1 billion per year industry in 1992 to a $5 billion per year industry currently. They have attracted millions of customers by advertising cosmetic as well as physical and psychological benefits.

The scientific research we have, however, reveals an undeniable link between skin cancer and ultraviolet light exposure from indoor tanning lamps. Just this past July, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed that artificial tanning devices, similar to excessive sun exposure and cigarette smoking, indeed belong in the highest category of potential cancer risk, "carcinogenic to humans."

Announcement of this classification was followed by strong recommendations by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Dermatology to enact legislation and public health measures to restrict tanning bed use, especially by minors who are the most vulnerable to serious skin damage.

Attempts to enact regulations or policy to deter reckless artificial tanning device use in the past have been met with understandably great resistance from the large indoor tanning industry. These attempts have often failed or brought only minimal changes. Recent conversations in senate, however, offerus a glimmer of hope. In addition to the tax on elective cosmetic procedures that were discussed with the new health-care plan, last week adding an excise tax on indoor UV light tanning products and services was also considered.

A tax on tanning can effectively change unhealthy and costly behaviors.

Many countries already use tobacco and alcohol taxation to create economic disincentives to consuming these products. In the United States, the tobacco excise tax has been the most effective intervention at reducing rates of smoking. It can be assumed that a tanning tax would be even more successful at deterring excessive UV light exposure, as the more expensive artificial UV light could not be smuggled over borders or transferred between consumers.

Increasing the cost of exposure will also likely preferentially protect youth, who have lower incomes and are particularly vulnerable to UV rays.

A tax on indoor tanning would also prove to be more than just sin taxation, or the government's way of controlling undesirable behavior. We know that tanning is a major contributor to the development of skin cancer, and therefore a behavior that is costly to the healthcare system. The American Academy of Dermatology Association and the Society for Investigative Dermatology estimate the total annual direct costs in the treatment of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers to be $30 million and $1.5 billion respectively.

This tax, then, will justly require those who place a greater financial burden on society by indulging in a recognized and preventable unhealthy behavior to be taxed extra to pay for these costs.

The best part of this proposed tax is that any individual may choose at any time to not pay this tax by simply not purchasing UV light tanning products and services.

The proposal to tax indoor tanning is in very early stages, and unfortunately is not being seriously considered yet. However, if enacted, this excise tax would not only effectively decrease demand and exposure to a well-documented carcinogen, but generate needed funds for skin cancer prevention and healthcare services related to long-term consequences of excessive UV light exposure.