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Washington's Joke War On Tanning Salons Has Gone Too Far

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, the Obama Administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill conspired to slip in a tax on tanning salons, widely derided as a useless gesture meant to poke fun at the perpetually-tan John Boehner, who at the time was Minority Leader of the House and the leader of the anti-Obamacare opposition on Capitol Hill.


In the Affordable Care Act, a massive piece of legislation that carried a $900 billion price tag, there was a small provision projected to raise "only" $2.7 billion: a tax on tanning salons. The biggest reason that the provision got noticed was that President Obama himself poked fun at Boehner over the tax. Some began referring to it as the "Boehner Tax." All because the president's chief antagonist in Washington was perpetually tan.

Well, it's not funny any more. The tax is an abject failure; it turns out that America isn't suffering from a scourge of overtanning. That's not going to deter the nannies in Washington who, after starting only semi-sarcastically down the road to taxing-and-regulating an industry, simply cannot stop.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently deep into a comment period on more proposed regulations of tanning salons: they want to prohibit indoor tanning to anyone under the age of 18, and they want to have everyone who uses a tanning salon to sign a waiver every six months "acknowledging that they have been informed of the risks" of tanning salons. This is in the wake of a 2014 regulation by the FDA that tanning beds carry a warning label. But the FDA, like most regulatory agencies, begins with mere information. Then they move to mandates. And finally, they end up at prohibition. Indeed, this newest regulation is a prohibition that the FDA is pitching under the guise of “informing consumers.”


Taxing and regulation of tanning salons has traditionally been the province of state and local governments, not the federal Food and Drug Administration - and the knowledge of the risks and rewards the province of parents. Furthermore, this rushes to judgment on science that is far from settled. While the FDA has taken it upon itself to be the final word, federally-funded research from the National Institutes of Health found benefits to tanning - namely, enhanced mood and increased vitamin D levels in the tanning population.

That’s not to say there are no downsides. The science on the matter is still evolving. But this is precisely the reason why it’s best to let these matters continue to be addressed at the state level. Some states prohibit minors from using tanning salons. Some require parental consent. Some have under-14 prohibitions but allow it for under-18s. Some abstain from these regulations. This is democracy in action – and there’s no reason why it can’t continue absent federal regulation.

The fight is not over – the FDA is still taking comments on these potential regulations and may reconsider. But history has never been kind to advocates of light-handed regulation.

When it comes to federal regulators, the facts don't matter and the science doesn't matter. If people are doing things that are potentially harmful anywhere, the federal government wants to get involved. And if the federal government wants to get involved, the urge to continue to regulate will not stop. The Obamacare indoor tanning tax was a failure because progressive nannies assumed that Americans were harming themselves through over-tanning. It turned out not to be the case - Americans engage in the behaviors that the nannies abhor in moderation.


Tanning "is beneficial in moderation, but can be harmful in excess," conclude the authors of the NIH study on tanning. Federal regulators have never been ones for a light touch, though. When you have the power of prohibition, everything looks dangerous.

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