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Who Knew That Tanning Was Such a Big Deal in the Healthcare Debate?

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There’s a tanning bed tax that has had some weird consequences.

Photo: Steven Lawton/Getty Images

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Because we are in a very strange time in politics now, there’s some governmental tanning news to talk about that has nothing to do with our unnaturally orange president. The Obamacare health plan included a 10 percent tax for customers who used tanning bed salons. The new and very contentious Republican health plan calls for a repeal to this tax, among many others. While it’s meant to save people from paying taxes in the short term, it could have much longer-term consequences — and possible already has.

And so, in a meeting of the House Committee on Ways and Means yesterday, members of Congress engaged in some surreal conversations about tanning beds.

As reported by Esquire, a Republican representative, Jason Smith of Missouri, at one point suggested that perhaps we should just tax the sun because that causes skin cancer also. He also suggested that the tax was terrible for women, since most tanning salon owners and users are women. (No word on whether the president uses commercial tanning beds.)

The tax had a few different purposes. One purpose was to raise money to help fund Obamacare. According to Forbes, the tanning bed tax was meant to raise $2.7 billion over ten years. Five years into the Obamacare program, however, it had raised less than $500 million total.

Second, it was meant to discourage people from indoor tanning, the same way the cigarette tax is meant to discourage smoking. The data on indoor tanning is pretty clear: It’s bad for you. The Skin Cancer Foundation condemns the practice, and a 2014 study noted that indoor tanning was responsible for more cases of skin cancer than smoking was for lung cancer.

Ever so coincidentally, a study released at the end of February estimates that tanning beds cost $343 million every year in medical bills. While you can’t trace skin cancer to any one instance of sun exposure, the researchers estimated that 263,000 cases of skin cancer in 2015 could be attributed to indoor tanning bed use. So removing a tax on tanning beds, which perhaps will encourage more frequent use, could increase the incidence of skin cancer and, yes, medical and insurance costs.

But indoor tanning has been on the decline. Salon owners have blamed the Obamacare tax for a decrease in business and the closure of 10,000 salons. (Even Snooki spoke out against it.) But the reality is more complicated than that, and likely began before the tax. Because of indoor tanning’s known risks, a lot of states and municipalities started banning them for teens and running campaigns to discourage use by young adults.

Backlash came from the federal level, too: In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission forced indoor tanning salons to stop advertising tanning’s supposed health benefits. In 2014, the Surgeon General called out tanning beds in a “Call to Action” against skin cancer. That same year, the FDA required warnings to be placed on indoor tanning devices. In short, tanning bed salons are hurting largely because of the tanning beds themselves.

It hasn’t helped that the big business of cosmetic self-tanner is growing, thanks to products that are safe alternatives to indoor tanning and look more natural than ever.

So while the taxes collected on tanning salons in five years of Obamacare are barely enough to cover two years’ worth of skin cancer medical costs, letting the tax go could bump medical costs up. Better coverage for preventative care (which has been shown to ultimately save money on healthcare in the long run) and early screening for skin cancer could help.

But by all accounts, the new Republican health plan will actually insure fewer people, meaning they won’t have access to it in the first place. But hey, maybe more tanning bed salons will be able to stay open?

Either way, this new plan may, uh, burn people in the long run.