New tanning bed tax worries the beleaguered industry

DENVER -- It's prime season for tanning beds, when proms and spring beach vacations prompt young women to 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 Lee's Summit, Mo., tanning bed manufacturer and distributor.

The government says the indoor tanning industry is peddling a known cancer risk.