Bill Constraining Teen Access to Tanning Parlors May Survive Legislature's Darwin Stage

Monday, April 16, 2012

You could say that the 2011-12 session of the Massachusetts legislature has entered its inevitable Darwin Stage, the time when only the strongest bills survive.

At the beginning of every session, when literally thousands of bills are filed, a legislator may evince optimism about the enactment of almost any bill and not incur any skepticism or scorn whatsoever.

My bill is both good and necessary, a rep or senator may reason, and I am a born campaigner, so I know I can make the case for it to my colleagues…and there’s plenty of time to move it forward, so why not be confident?

But as the session grinds on, and as the legislature bogs down in routine business and is continually obligated to deal with pressing issues, the window for action on any given bill steadily shrinks. Next thing you know, it’s Year 2 of the session; everyone is absorbed by the struggle over the next state budget, which must be completed by June 30; and the deadline for concluding formal business is looming:

In a year such as this, when there’s an election for state offices, the legislature must adjourn by July 31.

It then becomes clear, as it is today, that only a handful of compelling bills have a realistic chance of passing both the House and Senate, and making it to the Governor’s desk for signature. Generally speaking, bills achieve such force only when they promise to respond to a problem weighing heavier and heavier on the public’s mind.

This spring, for example, some influential members of the legislature are standing by with a bill to clamp down on tanning parlors at a time when public awareness is coalescing around the risks of exposure to ultraviolet light, especially among celebrity-besotted teens in pursuit of perfect bronze-ness.

Senate Bill 2211, An Act Further Regulating Tanning Facilities, received a favorable report April 9 from the Joint Committee on Public Health and was quickly sent to the Senate Committee on Ethics and Rules for further action. Among other things, SB 2211 would:

  • Stop anyone under the age of 16 from using a tanning device without a written order from a physician.

  • Prevent any 16-to-17-year-old child from using a tanning device without the written consent of a parent or legal guardian.

  • Require a parent or legal guardian to review warnings on ultraviolet exposure before granting written consent to a child to use a tanning device.

  • Mandate that a parent or legal guardian, in the presence of a tanning parlor operator, sign a statement “acknowledging receipt and understanding of the (ultraviolet) warning statement."

Some very solid and disturbing medical findings form the backdrop for this bill and others like it, here in Massachusetts and across the nation. Even as occurrence rates for some cancers are decreasing, skin cancer is increasing significantly, and especially among people under age 40.

Dr. Jerry Brewer, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic, points out, “A recent study reported that people who use indoor tanning beds frequently are 74% more likely to develop melanoma, and we know young women are more likely to use them than young men. The results of this study emphasize the importance of active interventions to decrease risk factors for skin cancer, and, in particular, to continue to alert young women that indoor tanning has carcinogenic effects that increase the risk of melanoma.”

That’s something for every parent of a teen to ponder when her child announces, “I’m going tanning.”

Look up SB 2211 on the legislature’s section of the state web site -- http://www/massgov -- and you’ll find that the Joint Committee on Public Health is listed as the bill’s “prime sponsor,” a sign of semi-distinction, for such bills stand above the crowd of most backlogged legislation. A whole-committee sponsorship does not guarantee, of course, that a bill will survive the Darwin Stage. But it definitely improves its odds.

An Act Further Regulating Tanning Facilities is a strong bill getting stronger at just the right time in the long endurance test that every session of the Massachusetts legislature becomes.

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