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Originally published Sunday, February 12, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Protect our kids from cancer-inducing tanning beds

When it comes to protecting young teens from a tanning bed's harmful rays, Washington lawmakers should not be timid, says the former chief of pediatrics at Harborview Medical Center.

Special to The Times

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I DON'T know when or why cancer has become so closely associated with the language of combat. We hear of multiple "wars" and "crusades" waged against cancer. Obituaries — all too many of them — invariably describe a person succumbing "surrounded by loving family members after a brave battle with cancer."

Because prevention in general is not a sexy topic, efforts to prevent cancer are rarely described in such hyperbolic terms. The goal line for "winning," when it does occur, is not clearly demarcated and exists far in the distance. And so often there is conflicting evidence whether a preventive intervention really works. Most public attention on cancer prevention focuses on banning "toxic agents" that might possibly bring on the disease many years down the road.

What about agents proven to induce cancer? Alas, there are all too few of them. The properly designated war over smoking, pitting profits against lives, goes on unabated. Then there is exposure to ultraviolet light, either directly from the sun or from artificial sources. Which brings me to a bill currently before the Washington Legislature (SB 6249) that would ban persons under 18 from tanning salons.

I have been a citizen lobbyist for children's health issues both in Olympia and Washington, D.C., for almost 50 years. The vituperative partisanship that has evolved in political debate is obvious to all. Less well known, but greatly appreciated, is the reprieve from partisanship traditionally given when matters of children's health and welfare are considered. It is critical that this spirit of bipartisanship be maintained when it comes to protecting kids from developing cancer.

What is the connection between tanning lights and melanoma?

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and its incidence is on the rise. It is the commonest form of all cancers in 25- to 29-year-olds, and the second most common form of cancer in those ages 15 to 29.

Indoor tanning nearly doubles the risk of melanoma. This risk increases further with more time spent in the tanning beds. This leads to a 2.5-fold increased risk in those who use tanning beds more than 100 times per year.

Nearly 70 percent of tanning-salon patrons are Caucasian girls and women, ages 16 to 29. The earlier tanning bed use begins, the higher the risk for early onset melanoma. Melanoma is rising at alarming rates for women in this age group.

The ultraviolet A rays of a tanning bed can be 10 to 12 times more powerful than natural sunlight.

Every human being entering the Olympia legislative chambers in any capacity has to know or have known a victim of cancer. And every one of those individuals sincerely wants to prevent cancer from occurring in themselves, in a family member or in a friend. Yet, when the opportunity arises to take a tangible step that would assuredly prevent numerous cancer deaths, timidity steps in.

Yes, the tanning salons will lose business. Their owners have a perfect right to describe the extent of that loss to legislators. And in the name of free speech, they can try to discredit scientific evidence linking tanning to melanoma. It is outrageous in my view, however, to grant legitimacy to such testimony.

Are there legislators who really think that the pediatricians and dermatologists of Washington state and the scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center would offer tainted evidence about cancer?

Some have said that because they are engaged in budget matters, this cancer-prevention measure should not be brought up. That is ducking the issue. Let us pull together and take a tangible step in cancer prevention that we know will protect children and save lives.

Dr. Abraham Bergman is former chief of pediatrics at Harborview Medical Center and professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

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