Northwestern study: federal tanning tax deters few customers

Daniel Schlessinger

Alex Dinos said she is not sure about any harmful effects of indoor tanning, and she doesn’t care about its cost. Once she got hooked on tanning, the Weinberg freshman didn’t stop.

“I’ve been tanning for about year,” Dinos said. “I did it for prom last year, and I’ve been keeping it up.”

In an effort to deter tanning salon customers like Dinos, Congress passed a 10 percent federal excise tax on all indoor tanning use starting in July 2010. The move, largely supported by dermatologists and doctors, was intended to reduce

indoor tanning salon use and its carcinogenic effects, said Dr. June Robinson, a professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

However, when Robinson and two other researchers at NU surveyed 308 Illinois tanning salons about the effects of the tax, they found little evidence of a decrease in customers.

“They could charge me pretty much anything,” Dinos said. “I wouldn’t even notice.”

The study, which was published last week in the Archives of Dermatology, showed only 26 percent of salons said they had fewer customers since the tax was implemented and 78 percent said their customers did not care about the tax.

“The problem is that no matter how much of a ban that someone puts in place, it’s the enforcement that’s the hard part,” Robinson said. “It’s similar to seat belt legislation.”

One potential issue, Robinson explained, is when the bill was going through legislation in 2010, salon owners threatened they would simply pay the tax themselves. Customers would never see the effects of it unless the salon decided to charge each user.

In their study, though, Robinson and her team found only 9 percent of salons were absorbing the tax.

Marc Winner, owner of Soleil Tanning in Chicago, said the tax has made an impact on his business. He said neither he nor his customers agree with having a tax on a service, but his salon does not absorb the tax for customers.

“This is a service – like when you get your nails done, you should never get a tax,” Winner said. “Tell me why McDonald’s doesn’t absorb their tax.”

Robinson disagreed and said indoor tanning exposes consumers to known carcinogens. She said minors start tanning as early as age 10, and when parents support tanning it complicates the issue.

Winner, however, said he believes the tax unfairly targets the indoor tanning business. He said some tanning beds in his salon have reduced levels of UVB radiation, and he contrasted the tanning tax with a proposed tax on cosmetic procedures that did not make it through Congress.

“We don’t have lawyers and lobbyists and power to fight legislation like the cosmetic industry did to fight taxes on Botox and breast augmentations,” Winner said.

Though the study indicates tanning salon use has not decreased, Robinson perceived the tax as an overall victory against tanning. She said she was happy most salons are passing the tax along to customers and believes this is just the beginning in decreasing salon use.

“You have to take baby steps,” Robinson said. “Once recognizing that they have passed the tax on, more taxes can be added at the local, state and community level until you get to the point where it does become a barrier.”

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