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‘Tanning Mom’ Prompts NJ Lawmakers to Get Tough on Tanning Salons

With skin cancer up 43 percent in Garden State, focus of New Jersey’s now-notorious tanner shifts to melanoma awareness.

Credit: Philly.com
Patricia Krentcil and her daughter.

The New Jersey tanning mom who’s gained notoriety in late-night comic sketches and tabloid headlines helped shine awareness in Trenton on “Melanoma Monday” -- the American Cancer Society’s annual day for raising public awareness of the most lethal form of skin cancer -- and for lawmakers to impose tougher restrictions on the state’s 300-plus tanning parlors.

At a press conference in Trenton, Dr. Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), the Assembly’s health committee chairman, said New Jersey’s tanning cause célèbre could help move a bill that stalled in the last legislative session to raise from 14 to 18 the legal age to visit a tanning salon in New Jersey. Under the 2006 law that Conaway also sponsored, children under 14 are barred from tanning salons, but from 15 to 17 can get an indoor tan with written parental permission.

Conaway was referring to Patricia Krentcil, the Nutley mom who pleaded not guilty last week to a child-endangerment charge that she allegedly placed her kindergarten daughter in a tanning bed. "It's a story that has gone around the world," the lawmaker said, "and it has captured the minds of decision makers, and so our hope is that because of this incident, we will see this bill come to pass.”

On “Melanoma Monday,” the American Cancer Society (ACS) released a new report showing that the incidence of melanoma in New Jersey rose 43 percent, to an annual rate of 21.4 cases per 100,000 people from 2005 to 2009, compared with 15 cases per 100,000 from 1995 to 1999. In 2009 the World Health Organization raised the classification of ultraviolet-emitting indoor tanning devices to the highest level of cancer risk.

The ACS and the Dermatological Society of New Jersey support raising the tanning salon age to 18. The advocates said raising the bar will make it easier for parents to say no -- and protect children from parents who frequent tanning salons and influence their children by example. “It gets back to the role of parents: 30 percent of kids who tan say their parents also tan. It is not surprising that children model the behavior of their parents,” Conaway said.

A bill raising the tanning salon age to 18 passed the Senate last session but never came up for a vote in the Assembly. Conaway said that doesn’t mean the bill won’t get through this time. “We don’t always get done the things we want to get done, but this bill is timely.” The Nutley case “will certainly get the attention of this issue among my colleagues. I can tell you that we will try to have it through our house before we break for the summer.”

Blair Horner, vice president for advocacy of the American Cancer Society of NY & NJ, said lobbying by the tanning salon industry in New Jersey was a factor in stalling the bill in the last session. The industry will also fight the bill this time around, said James Oliver, chief executive of Parsippany-based Beach Bum Tanning, which has 53 locations, including 18 in New Jersey. Oliver contended that moderate exposure to UV radiation during a tanning salon session is not dangerous.

The industry employs 2,500 people in New Jersey, mostly young adults ages 18 to 25, a group with a higher-than-average unemployment rate. “We employ a very important segment of the population,” he said. The tanning salon industry in New Jersey has annual revenue of about $130 million. Another industry source said tanning salons would lose about 5 percent of their annual revenue if the legal age for indoor tanning were raised to 18.

At the state Capitol, dermatologists advocated for the age restrictions and provided free skin cancer screenings.

Among those who oppose indoor tanning is Dr. Richard Bezozo, president of MoleSafe USA, which uses imaging technology for the early identification of melanoma. Founded 14 years ago in New Zealand, MoleSafe entered the United States about four years ago. It’s based in Millburn with several locations around the country, including the New York University Langone Medical Center.

Patients are generally referred to MoleSafe by their dermatologist. MoleSafe takes digital photographs of the patient’s entire skin surface, and physicians at NYU who specialize in dermoscopy then analyze these images. Bezozo explained that this process is analogous to getting a mammogram.

The procedure utilizes a combination of high resolution imaging technology that uses high intensity light to penetrate through the surface of the skin to reveal the structure of moles and other lesions. Bezozo said digital imagining of the mole makes it possible to analyze moles at the cellular level and conduct a more thorough examination than is possible with the naked eye.

Just as gynecologists urge patients to do breast self-examination each month, “it is important for everyone to know their own skin,” Bezozo said.

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