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The tanners' dilemma 

A new tanning-salon tax has people seeing red

The price of beauty just increased: On July 1, lawmakers started turning up the heat on tanning salons throughout the United States by requiring them to charge customers an extra 10 percent tax to climb into their UV browning booths.

Congress slid the tax into the healthcare reform act at the 11th hour after surgeon-funded lobbyists managed to block the proposed Botax, a levy that would’ve targeted people paying for cosmetic surgery. According to lawmakers, the “tanning tax” is expected to generate about $2.7 billion over 10 years to help fund the $940 billion healthcare bill.

The move isn’t sitting well with many salon owners and tanning enthusiasts, who say they’re being unfairly targeted by the government.

Sharon Smith Morrow, owner of Tanners Cove salons in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Orcutt, said the tax “is just another way to layer money to the government. It’s just another big twist in the way that our taxes have been going.”

Rather than turning to larger corporations to generate tax revenues, she explained, Congress is targeting the smaller, less politically connected mom-and-pop businesses.

“I’m truly the little guy,” Smith Morrow lamented. “I have about 20 employees, and I do my best to pay them well—about $9 to $10 an hour, plus commission.”

The new tax, she said, could force her to cut costs.

“I opened my shops 11 years ago, and this is the first time in 11 years that I’m afraid,” she said. “With the recession, it hurt a little bit. But now, with the tax added on top of it, I’m scared.

“[The government] wants to make it sound like the tanning industry is some kind of huge industry that makes a ton of money,” she continued, “but I’m already getting as much as I can from these people. I don’t think they’re going to pay ridiculous amounts to tan.”

Ashley Calderon, a manager at the Tanners Cove in Santa Maria, is a little less worried about the impact of the tax. “I think people who tan are going to continue to tan, just like smokers continue to smoke when they’re taxed,” she said. But she maintained that’s where the comparison between smoking and tanning ends. (Many people have likened the tanning tax to the tax on cigarettes because of health risks associated with both activities.)

When asked about the tanning/smoking comparison, Misty Vandermeulen, manager and co-owner of Image Tanning Salon in Santa Maria, said: “But isn’t over-eating bad for you? When are they going to start taxing people more for eating fast food?

“Anything you overdo can be bad for you,” she countered. “I think people really need to educate themselves. They need to realize how much money industries make over making people afraid of the sun—doctors, sunscreen companies, the companies that make sunglasses and hats.”

Vandermeulen and Smith Morrow are both staunch believers in the healthful benefits of the sun. Tanning booths, they said, offer controlled environments in which to receive those benefits, such as a base tan to protect against sunburns and people’s daily quotas of Vitamin D. Both women cited an organization called Smart Tan as a source.

Local dermatologist Dr. David Moats, however, isn’t buying Smart Tan’s message.“Sun exposure is cumulative, and it does catch up with you,” he said.

He explained that the long-wave ultraviolet light used in tanning booths doesn’t cause sunburns as readily as regular sunlight, “but it can penetrate deeper into the skin and interact with your DNA to cause skin irregularities and even cancer.”

And when it comes to the Vitamin D argument, Moats said: “You can go down to the drug store and buy Vitamin D pills.” Plus, don’t forget that giant, burning ball of Vitamin-D producing light called the sun.

Still, Moats said he isn’t sure how effective the tax will be at stopping people from tanning. “I have a natural inclination to dislike taxing as a way to modify people’s behavior,” he said. “I don’t know to what extent it will discourage people to tan, but it’s definitely one way to do it.”

Regardless of your stance on tanning, Smith Morrow said, the tax burns down to a question of fair business practices. “With things the way they are, I would definitely not open another salon. I have absolutely no desire to grow my business,” she said. “They did the 10 percent thing overnight. What else could they do to me?”

Plus, Smith Morrow added, who’s to say lawmakers won’t start coming after other service-oriented businesses? “This is the first service tax, and maybe not the last,” she said. “There could be more taxes coming, with Congress the way it is.” ∆

Amy Asman is News Editor at New Times’ sister newspaper, Santa Maria Sun. Contact her at


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