DES MOINES — Mark Menard was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2007. Four years later, on July 14, 2011, he was dead.
The retired Navy senior chief was 41.
“I’ve met moms who’ve buried their daughters, husbands who’ve buried their wives because of this,” said Mark’s widow, Molly. She’s a postal worker in West Branch who has been organizing skin cancer screenings and sharing Mark’s story since his diagnosis.
Over the summer, she caught the ear of Bobby Kaufmann, a freshman Republican representative from Wilton who was door-knocking in her neighborhood. The story bothered him enough that he sought out Democratic state Rep. Lisa Heddens of Ames, who unsuccessfully pushed for tighter restrictions on tanning beds last year.
Their bill, House File 2030, bans tanning for anyone younger than 18 and requires tanning facilities to give customers written warnings about the dangers of tanning beds when they patronize a business.
“I think there are certain dangers that minors should be limited from — obviously tobacco and alcohol — along with others that minors are not allowed to use,” he said. “I see cancer to be a very preventable epidemic in this country, and I am concerned that minors aren’t fully aware of the extreme hazards of (tanning beds).”
Iowa and its neighbors
Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have some type of age-restriction on tanning beds use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Iowa is not one of them. Iowa law requires bed operators to post warning signs and that customers use their own eye shades — or be supplied with disposable ones — when tanning.
Among Iowa’s neighbors, Illinois bans the use of beds for children younger than 18, and Wisconsin and Minnesota ban it for those younger than 16. Nebraska, South Dakota and Missouri don’t have age-restricted bans.
“Iowa has been known for not passing (ban legislation), but every year, we see attempts and successful attempts in other states,” said Dr. Marta VanBeek, a dermatologist and professor at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine.
Skin cancer is often categorized into melanoma and non-melanoma types. The former is less common, but often more severe. It’s also becoming increasingly common in Iowa. According to statistics from the Iowa Department of Public Health, the number of melanoma cases increased from 600 in 2005 to 848 in 2010, a jump of 41 percent.
VanBeek says there’s “overwhelming evidence” that even one visit to a tanning bed can increase the risk of melanoma or non-melanoma cancer exponentially.
“There have been lots of studies about this,” VanBeek said. “It’s the acute exposure to (ultra-violet) light that is the main problem.”
A federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that “people who begin tanning younger than age 35 have a 59 percent higher risk of melanoma.” The World Health Organization says “exposure to UV, either naturally from the sun or from artificial sources such as sunlamps, is a known risk factor for skin cancer.”
VanBeek’s suggestion: “Use spray-on tan. Or tan-in-a-bottle.”
The counter argument
Joe Levy, scientific adviser to the American Suntan Association, argues “the relationship is not that straightforward” between tanning beds and skin cancer.
“Saying UV light is connected to melanoma is like saying water is connected to drowning,” he said. “We know there’s a risk factor for overexposure, but there are other factors, too.”
The organization represents 14,000 tanning operators in North America. The group is, somewhat unexpectedly, signed on in favor of the Kuafmann/Heddens bill.
“In the past, we have opposed similar legislation,” he said. “But this would cover such a small percentage of our business — it’s 2 to 3 percent in terms of UV tanning — that we see it as an opportunity to have a mature discussion (about tanning).”
Kaufmann said the legislation is a starting point. He’s willing to deal on the age limitation or loosen restrictions in some other way if it will help the bill pass.
“I hope it would (pass),” Heddens said. “I think this goes right along with the governor’s healthiest state. I think we have to make people aware of some of the dangers.”
Still, the bill’s future looks to hinge more on a philosophical argument rather than a medical one. It’s in a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Megan Hess, R-Spencer, who characterized its status as “indefinite suspension.”
Subcommittee member Mark Costello, R-Imogene, said it boils down to the role of government.
“I think it’s mostly parental responsibility,” Costello said. “I’ve heard of cases where young girls have really gone overboard and gotten skin cancers, but I think there (are) dangers in a lot of things in life.”
Meanwhile, Molly Menard said she will keep on telling her family’s story until something changes.
“That was my promise to my husband before he died,” she said. “You can almost prevent it.”