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When Will It End?
The California Tan Ban

The California State Assembly has passed a bill that bans people under eighteen from artificial tanning booths. Now California teenagers aren't allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, buy lottery tickets, or go to tanning booths.

Backers of the bill, including the California Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery, blame tanning salons for part of 1 million new cases of skin cancer diagnosed every year in the United States. The group cited 7,400 deaths annually from melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

"There is a big difference between going to the beach and a tanning salon," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Joe Nation, a Democrat. "When kids go to the beach they put on sun screen."


If the aim of the bill is to protect teenagers from themselves by preventing them from getting skin cancer, to be consistent, won't they also have to pass a bill mandating sun screen for teens on the beach? Maybe they'll even have to mandate it for teens who are outside for more than an hour at a time.

When I read things like this, I have to wonder how far laws aimed at forcing people to take care of themselves will go. As far as I can tell, the only justification for this law is that artificial tanning booths can cause skin cancer, and people under eighteen aren't old enough to make the decision to take that risk. But what criteria are used to determine the age at which a person can understand the risks of an action enough that he or she should be allowed to do it? For alcohol consumption, eighteen is not old enough--you have to be twenty-one. The same goes for buying a handgun in many (most?) states. I think that in some states, you have to be twenty-one to purchase (and maybe to view) 'obscene' materials like pornography. And of course, no one is ever old enough to use marijuana or other drugs.

Is there any consistent difference in risk associated with the different age requirements? I'm fairly sure that driving is riskier than all of these other activities combined even when the driver in question hasn't been drinking or using drugs, yet many states allow teenagers to drive when they are sixteen. Viewing obscene materials is certainly safer even than going to a tanning booth, as is using marijuana.

If, as appears to be the case, there is no real standard of when something is risky enough to ban for people under sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, or to ban completely, there is a very real danger to individual liberty. The only thing standing between the under-eighteen tanning ban and an outright artificial tanning ban for all ages is popular opinion--the same thing standing between the age-restrictions on tobacco and alcohol and on the total ban on drugs like marijauana. If tanning was (or ever is) looked upon by the popular eye in the way that drug use is, I have no doubt that the members of the State Assembly would have felt entitled to ban it altogether.

The bill passed despite opposition from tanning salons and Republican lawmakers opposed to "meddling" in personal choices.

"If this bill passes it proves there's no part of somebody's life this Legislature won't stick its nose into," said GOP Assemblyman Ray Haynes.


I would hope that instead of thinking, "Yes, that's dangerous. Let's ban it," lawmakers like those in California would take a look at the bigger picture. Is it really a good idea to start banning things just because they endanger an individual? They could at least set some standard of what level of risk is enough to warrant such bans. If the cancer risk from use of articifial tanning booths is great enough to justify the ban, then there are all sorts of activities of equal or greater risks that could also be made age-restricted or completely prohibited. Perhaps they should just get it over with and pass a "No taking risks until you're eighteen" law.
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