Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

Tanning Salon Owners: Obamacare Killed the Tanning Bed

By Leon Kaye

Despite her ongoing email controversy and Donald Trump’s relatively tame rhetoric over the past few days, Hillary Clinton is gaining in the polls and is even putting some reliably red states in play. But there is one demographic Hillary cannot count on: tanning salon owners.

Obamacare, tanning salon owners are saying, is killing their industry. And according to a recent Associated Press investigation, there will be hell to pay when the artificially-bronzed confront the ballot box come November.

The collapse of this industry, say the salon owners, comes from the “taxable indoor tanning service” stipulation tucked into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA, commonly known as Obamacare). First surging in popularity during the 1980s, the tanning industry had managed to hold on, thanks in large part to the personalities in reality shows such as "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and "Jersey Shore." But the way the tax is written into law, there is no escaping this levy. Tanners are refusing to pay the extra charge on such services, and are walking out the doors instead.

Any service that employs one or more electronic ultraviolet lamps, with wavelengths in air between 200 and 400 nanometers that induces tanning, is subjected to a 10 percent federal tax. The IRS mandates this fee even if such a facility is classified as a “qualified physical fitness facility.” In other words, if one tans at the gym, he or she is still required to pay this tax. Spray tans, topical creams or lotions, however, are exempt from this fee (just don't wear white for a few days).

The problem with tanning beds is that many public health professionals link them to skin cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites many studies tying the use of tanning beds to melanoma. The Melanoma Foundation savaged the tanning industry for claiming that tanning beds are a safe source of Vitamin D. Earlier this year, a dermatology journal suggested that young women seeking that bronzed glow in tanning beds run up to a six-fold chance of developing melanoma in their lifetimes. And as mentioned in the Associated press report, the American Cancer Society urges people to avoid tanning beds, as melanoma is the second most common form of cancer found in women between the ages of 20 and 29. Estimates suggest that over 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are detected annually, more than all the other types of cancer combined.

The argument in favor of such a tax is to have the vice pay for health services, akin to tobacco taxes and the soda tax in Berkeley, California. The logic follows that such a tax can discourage those behaviors. In the case of cigarettes, and now tanning, such policies are working.

The danger politicians face is in relying on those taxes to fund programs. During the first Bush administration, for example, President George H.W. Bush agreed to tax increases in order to balance the federal budget, which fell into disarray during the Reagan administration. That reversal of Bush’s “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge haunted him for the rest of his term, as it inspired a primary challenge by Pat Buchannan and contributed to his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton.

Some economists argued that Bush’s budget policies eventually contributed to the federal surpluses of the late 1990s for which Bill Clinton takes credit. But amongst those tax hikes was a “luxury tax” that included yachts, private planes, high-end cars, furs and watches. Those taxes never materialized to much, but analysts said they killed the yachting industry, along with jobs. Most of these taxes were rescinded in 1993. Nevertheless, the chances are high those who wrote the Obamacare legislation, and how tanning beds would factor in, were not thinking about revenues. And it is safe to say that growing health awareness, not a punitive tax, killed the tanning salon.

If anything, society would save on health care costs, since without the tax tanning salon owners would pocket profits while insurers or taxpayers would front the costs of skin cancer treatments. As political analyst Paul Constant notes: “For many years, the true cost of tanning salons were protected from the free market by government nonintervention. In effect, without that tax we’re all subsidizing the tanning industry’s impacts.”

As the shuttered storefronts in strip malls across the country show, the tax has definitely had an impact. An estimated 10,000 of the 18,000 tanning salons across the country have closed since the tanning tax went into effect. One of them was "Jersey Shore" star Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s Boca Tanning Club, which closed down in 2015, less than a year after it opened in Middletown, New Jersey.

Image credit: Alexis O’Toole/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye