Monday, March 12, 2012

Role of Government in Tanning Salons

As my last entry for my students in the School of Public Health third term course, I'd like them to think about tanning salons.  We are nearing spring with lots of opportunities for outdoor recreation for adults, for children, and for adults watching children (i.e., sports like baseball and lacrosse).  In any case, Idaho is apparently considering restrictions on the use of tanning salons by minors--and not even all the way up to 18, just up to 15.  You can find the story here.

What is interesting from an economist's point of view is the question--why do we need government regulation in this case?  Is it market power?  Probably not.  In most places where tanning salons spring up there are quite a few of them.  Monopolistic competition may be the best description of the market, but it certainly doesn't appear to be a concentrated market.

Is there a lack of information?  Maybe.  But the messages about sunscreen, skin cancer, etc., seem pretty wide spread.  That is true both in the US and Australia where I visited in January.  It seemed like you couldn't go more than one half hour without some type of public service commercial on television focusing on protecting oneself from skin cancer.

Is there a compelling need?  Maybe.  But on what basis?  Is there a disparity?  Is it to protect children?  If it is to protect children how does the government role fit with the parent role?  Why regulate for children and not adults?  Are there less direct measures that might result in a change in the use of tanning salons and now raise so much political controversy in a state that has historically placed a high value on personal freedom?

The question of personal freedom always leads to "freedom to do what?"  And that is a reasonable question.  Freedom to put oneself at risk for something?  If so, who pays for the consequences?  The article mentions motorcycle helmets--again, what is the risk and who pays?  Even for my beloved sport of running...if I put myself at risk for injury who should pay if I get injured?  What is the role of insurance--where those enrolled share risk--when people have some control over their own risk?  For example with running--what is the net risk?  Presumably lower for any disease related to cardiovascular health over time but a lot higher for sports-related injuries than my sedentary colleagues.  How shoudl we price that and at what level should we price it?  Me?  My employer?  Some other group?

There are no easy answers here--as usual.

Final question--the article comments on winners and losers from a policy like this.  Perhaps some entrepreneurs who expected to make more money on tanning salons are financial losers.  Perhaps younger teens who want use the tanning beds are "utility" losers.  But who would gain from this regulation--other than parents and public health experts with the utility of knowing their kids are at less risk (and there may even be some parents who agree with their teens' use of tanning salons).  Does anyone gain financially? 

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