It's prime season for tanning beds, when young women pack indoor salons in search of bronze skin to go with their new bikinis. But business is slow this spring.
Health warnings about the skin cancer risks of tanning beds, combined with consumers forgoing nonessentials in this recession, have the nation's estimated 18,000 tanning salons on hard times. Now they're bracing for another hit: A 10 percent tax on tanning bed use starts nationwide this July, part of the federal health care overhaul.
"Will I be here next year? I don't know," said Kristi Alpers, owner of Cherry Creek Tans in Denver. The tax will add 90 cents to a few dollars for a single tanning session, depending on the machine. It's a fee she thinks will bankrupt her.
"They're trying to ban tanning totally. That's what this is about."
Congressional tax writers project the tax will raise about $2.7 billion to help expand health coverage to uninsured Americans over the next decade, and they're betting that indoor tanners won't be turned off by a few extra dollars. After all, customers already are paying sales tax on tanning lotions and oils. Why not the tanning service itself?
"I don't care how much it costs, I'm going to do it. I love it," said Lisa Mailloux, who tans at Cherry Creek Tans.
The health warnings don't bother 57-year-old Kris Cruzen, a mechanic.
"I've been tanning for 30 years, and look at me," Cruzen said, stripping off his shirt before popping on protective eye goggles and climbing into a tanning bed. "I'm fine."
But the industry insists it's in danger. Many mom-and-pop salons are going to close, says the Indoor Tanning Association, although the industry group doesn't have figures.
"The jury's still out. We don't know how the public's going to take it," said Greg Henson, owner of Heartland Tanning Inc., a Missouri tanning bed manufacturer and distributor.
The government says the indoor tanning industry is peddling a known cancer risk.
In March, advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommended tighter controls on artificial tanning, ranging from requiring parental consent forms to banning use by younger teens. Last summer, the World Health Organization listed tanning beds as confirmed cancer-causers, particularly for teens and young adults.
The tanning tax wasn't in early versions of the health care bill. It was added after dermatologists persuaded powerful senators to substitute it for a proposed tax on cosmetic surgery. The "Botax" vanished, and the tanning tax took its place.
"It was a revenue source that could have an overall impact on the country's health," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who oversaw the final language.
The tanning industry was outmanuevered by a more powerful interest group.
"For some reason, they want us all out of business," said Tisha Schlochtermeier, who owns three Sun Connection tanning salons in Manhattan, Kan. "They just want to tax us to death."
Some in the medical profession would wear that charge as a badge of honor. Dr. Jeffrey Sosman, an oncologist who leads Vanderbilt University's melanoma program, said health authorities would be happy to see tanning bed salons shuttered because of the tax.
"It would be nice if it were the nail in the coffin," Sosman said. "The more it can discourage usage of these tanning beds, the better."
But he doubts the tax will be the fearsome deterrent that salon owners fear. Sosman called efforts to discourage use by teen girls through parental warnings "a joke." He noted that the industry is pushing back against medical research that documented the cancer risk.
Regular indoor tanning customers already know about doctors' warnings. Some say they don't mind the risks despite the options of spray-on tans and old-fashioned sunbathing.
"It's just a better look for people to be tan," said 20-year-old Ashleigh Deal, a University of Denver cheerleader who visits Cherry Creek Tans about once a week. "Young people are always going to want to be tan."