Suntans, once the gift of Mother Nature and now a commodity purveyed under tanning lamps all over town, are about to be placed on a par with some kinds of drugs. Just as prescriptions for Valium are recorded by the corner pharmacist, the number of suntans a person can purchase in a day will be similarly controlled.

Under new regulations proposed by the Arizona Radiation Regulation Agency, tanning salons will have to record and report the number of times each customer gets toasted. In other words, in a state where guns don't have to be registered, suntans will have to be.

You'd think the last thing Arizonans need would be tanning salons. Arizona, after all, has enough natural sunshine to have one of the highest reported skin-cancer rates on earth. And the barrage of publicity against sun worship, like the similar barrage against smoking, changed a lot of people's minds about suntans--as did the possibility of looking like a Shar-Pei in one's old age.

But the state and tan-trade associations estimate there are as many as 400 commercial operators in the state and some 500 people a day taking "treatments." Since the mid-1970s, tanning salons have flourished, although typically they go in and out of business even faster than restaurants. And they've caused some health problems. In one reported incident, a Phoenix woman called the radiation agency to tattle on a tanning parlor which fried her when a timer failed to shut off the machine. When a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official inspected the establishment, he found not only the tanning-bed timer on the blink, but an egg timer being used as a substitute also malfunctioning.

Nationwide, the FDA reports, tanning machines sent between 2,500 to 5,000 people to hospital emergency rooms last year. Two of those incidents ended in death, both attributed to ultraviolet radiation.

The problem, according to dermatologists, is the tanning bed itself. The bulbs, which surround customers from head to foot, emit UVA, UVB or a combination of rays in doses as much as ten times as strong as normal sunlight. That, in fact, is one of the major selling points for indoor tanning devices--more sun in less time.

Hence, the radiation agency wants to monitor statewide the effects of the machines and their operators--to sign up your suntan, as it were. On May 1, the agency will notify tanning salons, beauty parlors and health spas of the new regulations. Operators, under state radiation law, must register with the state, post warnings, make their businesses open to inspection, report injuries and report the number of times each person gets a treatment. The record collection is not unlike prescription drug records for substances like morphine.

Most of the new regulations had been contained in a bill introduced earlier in this legislative session by State Senator Lela Alston of Phoenix. Not a high-priority item with legislators, the bill is collecting dust in library archives. But nearly all its provisions are contained in the newly written regulations.

The exception is the portion concerning parental consent for underage tanners. That item, one of many included in this year's legislative kiddie-crackdown, was shot down by the state Attorney General's Office after a hearing with the governor's review board. Surprisingly, salon owners are not unhappy with the new regulations. Carolyn McBride, Golden Glo Tanning Salon owner, thinks they will take away the fly-by-night image of salons. At a recent hearing to discuss the regulations, the only person to show was a reporter from a national suntan magazine.

How important are the new strictures? Tanning, apparently, has become the latest substance of abuse. Kenneth Barat, a state radiation regulator, has seen people circumvent the present one-treatment-a-day rule.

"People hop from shop to shop and there's nothing to stop clients from two, three visits to different places," he says. --


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J. W. Casserly