Some customers heated over indoor 'tan tax,' which was part of health-care law

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

The sun hasn't exactly set on Solar Planet, but anxiety over the fate of the Arlington tanning salon has been running high ever since a "tan tax" took effect last Thursday.

One of the less-publicized measures in the new health-care law, the tax imposes a 10 percent surcharge on the use of ultraviolet indoor tanning beds.

Supporters -- including the Obama administration, congressional Democrats and dermatologists -- have argued that the tax will raise an estimated $2.7 billion toward the cost of expanding health coverage to the uninsured, while discouraging a practice that increases the risk of skin cancer by as much as threefold in frequent users, according to scientific research.

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But outraged owners of tanning salons worry that the levy could deal a death blow to an industry already reeling from the recession.

"In 26 years of business, this is the worst I've seen it," said Scott Shortnacy, owner of the Arlington Solar Planet as well as six other branches in the Washington area. "Normally for people who tan, it's a part of their lifestyle. They keep doing it even in a recession. But everybody has been looking for ways to cut back on those areas. . . . Our sales are down 20 to 30 percent."

According to the Indoor Tanning Association, an industry trade group, most of the nation's 19,000 tanning salons are small businesses that are owned and staffed by women. Shortnacy said all but two of his several dozen employees are women. With business so slow, he opted against hiring the 10 to 15 seasonal workers he normally adds during the spring high season.

Even the Arlington salon, Shortnacy's most successful location because of its proximity to sun-deprived Pentagon workers and Northern Virginia mall shoppers, is suffering. Appointments have dropped from 300 per day, to about 160.

How much further the tan tax will drive down those numbers is hard for Shortnacy to predict, however. And the early signs during a recent afternoon at the salon were mixed.

Like many customers, Lisa Haggett, 48, who recently retired from the Air Force and tans several times a week, said she made a point of buying her next package of sessions before July 1 so she could avoid the tax. After she's used up the package, she said, she may need to cut back. Unlimited monthly passes at the salon run about $50, said Haggett, whose visits have toasted her to a medium shade of brown.

"This is something that makes me feel good," Haggett said. "The reality is it's a luxury. It's not a need."

Dane Ellington, 49, a health-care consultant whose deep bronze color spoke to a lifetime of indoor tanning, expressed annoyance at being singled out. Why not tax people who sunbathe outdoors? Or binge on cheeseburgers? Or, for that matter, who use Botox injections -- which were originally slated to be taxed under the law until a last-minute frenzy of lobbying prompted lawmakers to substitute the tan tax.

"I understand that the money [for the health-care overhaul] needs to come from somewhere," Ellington said. "But this doesn't seem like the appropriate place. It's just silly."

Still, plenty of customers said they had no quarrels with the tax -- particularly those who supported the health-care law in general.

"I know I shouldn't be tanning, but I do it because it makes me feel better," said Karie Apicella, 34, a patent examiner whose fair skin had acquired a honey-hued glow. "So I guess I understand the idea behind the tax, and I'm willing to pay it."

"It's almost like when your parents tell you that you shouldn't drink and you sort of know it's true, but you do it anyway," said a laughing 29-year-old Marine officer who declined to give her name because she felt sheepish about divulging her tanning habits to those under her command.

"Some people pay $6 for a latte because it's their way of relaxing or treating themselves," the officer added. "Well, this is my latte, and I'm not going to stop ordering it."

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