AUGUSTA — For Sen. Amy Volk, one of the hazards of prom season is that teenage girls become so determined to look their best that they often turn to tanning salons to help give their skin a seemingly healthy glow.

“I have known girls who have tanned just to go dress shopping,” the Scarborough Republican said Wednesday as she explained her support for a measure that would bar anyone under 18 from using a tanning salon in a bid to help protect them from getting skin cancer.

Though a legislative committee urged rejection of her measure, the Senate upended the panel’s recommendation on a 19-15 vote that keeps the proposal alive.

For Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the bill would trample on the rights of parents to decide whether their children should be allowed to use regulated tanning salons that already bar anyone younger than age 14.

He said teens who are turned away will simply rely on unregulated tanning devices that are commonplace or take advantage of the sun itself when they can. In the end, Brakey said, the measure will do more harm than good.

Tanning is “not tobacco or plutonium exposure” that serves no useful function, Joseph Levy, scientific advisor to the American Suntanning Association and executive director of the International Smart Tan Network, recently testified. He said exposure to ultraviolet light is actually a necessity for life.

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The key, Levy said, is educate people about the risks and to ensure a balanced approach to tanning.

But Sen. James Dill, D-Old Town, said the reality is that seeking tans sharply increases the rates of melanoma and skin cancer among both young and old, with those who start early most at risk.

With one in six high school girls using tanning devices, he said, some of them almost daily, “it’s time we put a stop to this for people under the age of 18.”

“It’s a serious, serious problem,” Dill said.

The American Cancer Society said about 450 Mainers get melanoma annually and that the state is unusual in that the number of those afflicted has been rising for the past decade. It said the most avoidable risk is to skip tanning salons.

For Sen. Geoffrey Gratwick, D-Bangor, the possibility of preventing thousands of people from getting “this nasty, nasty disease” is a good reason to impose on parental rights.

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He said that 18 others states and countries such as France and Brazil have taken the same step because they recognize it’s a matter of “good public health” in the same way that existing restrictions on smoking, drinking and tattoos are in place for young people.

“We make many restrictions on young people because it takes awhile for young people’s brains to adjust,” Gratwick said.

A Republican senator from Augusta, Roger Katz, said the question comes down to whether the state or parents should make the choice. He said he prefers to leave it in the hands of parents.

Every time the government puts blocks on parental authority, Katz said, “we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Brakey said Maine’s law is already “very restrictive,” with a requirement that parents offer signed permission for those 14 to 17 to use a tanning salon. They have to be present for 14 and 15-year-olds, he said.

The Maine Academy of Family Physicians, though, has a different take.

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“We cannot understand how there could be such loose regulation as currently is allowed in this industry to put so many children at risk,” said Dr. William Sturrock, its president, in recent testimony.

He urged lawmakers to think “of the hundreds of thousands children in Maine that need you to act to prevent them from suffering real, life-endangering harm.”

“Every young life in Maine is precious and we simply can’t afford to have young people risking their lives in tanning facilities,” Volk said.

Katie Donnar, 18, shows her scar from where the melanoma was on the calf of her leg Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, in Vincennes, Indiana, in front of a tanning bed like the on she used at her home and at the tanning salons. Donnar was in the sixth grade when she started using tanning beds.


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