Congressman Jim Renacci and the 225 Additional Yearly Deaths

CW: cancer

For my North Royalton friends, do you know who your congressperson is? Turns out that it’s Jim Renacci, a fairly standard example of a moneyed Republican who was swept into the House as part of the 2010 wave.

Renacci happens to be on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which means he was part of a debate on the tanning tax this week within the context of the ACA repeal the Republicans have been discussing. For those of you who don’t know, the ACA put a ten percent tax on all indoor tanning services based on overwhelming evidence of the link between tanning beds and skin cancer. Ways and Means spent a large chunk of its ACA debate focused on the tanning tax, with another rep’s statements about taxing the sun gaining some headlines.

Lost in that shuffle was a moment where Renacci interrupts NJ Congressman Bill Pascrell while Pascrell tries to note that the tax is imposed on a demonstrably unhealthy activity. The video is here, but I’ll reproduce the quote:

“There is nothing that shows that it is not healthy. It says it actually could be healthy if you look at some of the studies. So I want to make sure that we can say it’s healthy. I’m not a doctor, you’re not a doctor. Look. There are studies that say it’s healthy and there are studies that say it’s not healthy, but let’s talk about the jobs that we lost and the wages that we lost.”

Let’s leave aside the claim that the science is not settled (it is). Let’s say there are studies that indicate that a course of action may endanger lives. At what point is it worth ignoring those dangers for purely monetary concerns? How many people are we willing to kill?

Let’s go to the tape. (If you don’t want to read through me showing my work, jump down three paragraphs.) Melanoma alone, which is only one of a few types of deadly skin cancers linked to UV exposure from tanning beds, yields roughly 76,000 new diagnoses per year. It also accounts for an estimated 10,000 deaths per year (compilation of ACS statistics).

Even pro-tanning sources generally concede that melanoma rates spike with the use of tanning beds (don’t click on this), and the CDC places the risk increase at 75%. While I will stick with this conservative number, I will note that robust, large sample size studies have found that the risk increase is as high as 500% for large subsets of the population.

While the size of the tanning industry since the tanning tax passed has been difficult to pin down, various sources seem to indicate that roughly half of all tanning salons nationwide have closed. (Much of this is likely the result of other restrictions passed at the state level on the industry.) Even if the tanning industry would grow 25% with a repeal of this tax, we’re talking about the opening of roughly 2500 new salons and 20,000 new jobs. Given that a post-ACA study indicates that 13% of adults, 43% of college students, and 10% of teenagers have used a tanning bed in the past year, we’re probably talking about an additional 3% of the population whose risk for melanoma increases.

So using those conservative assumptions, it’s easy to see how many deaths this particular denial of science can be directly linked to. If you increase 3% of the population’s risk by an additional 75% (which does not even account for the fact that people who are likely to tan are probably at a higher risk for skin cancers to begin with), you end up with an additional 1700 additional melanoma diagnoses per year and an additional 225 deaths. In other words, this is equivalent to the death toll from San Bernardino every three weeks.

If the repeal of the tanning tax were pitched as “let’s try to grow the economy, also this method will kill 225 people per year”, I would imagine support, if any, would be much less enthusiastic than Renacci’s. Even if the repeal of the tanning tax were pitched as “let’s try to grow the economy, also the science is unclear, but it could kill 225 people per year”, a vote in support would still be indefensible. This is clearly one of the difficulties of the climate change conversation; it is difficult to emphasize an immediate effect of a two-degree temperature increase (which yes, would be catastrophic).

And death is not the only collateral consequence, especially as this does not take into account the melanoma diagnoses that people manage to at least initially survive. Kelly never tanned a day in her life, but she stood tall for four years against her melanoma. She, as much as was possible, lived as full a live as any I have known. I did not yet know her at the time of her initial diagnosis, but I can say that in the three years that I did, I saw her truly afraid only once: shortly before its return was confirmed, when she kept rubbing at a swollen lymph node, worried about what it might mean for the upcoming summer and her bar study, with her first full-time legal job on the horizon.

Having that diagnosis crystallized things for her, but her treatment required decisions about potential side effects. Even though she was being treated at one of the world’s most renowned hospitals for cancer treatment and was able to use an experimental course that allowed her to avoid chemotherapy, there were several points where treatment might run risks that might affect her for the rest of her life.

One of the last conversations I had with her before she was hospitalized for the final time was about a Republican primary debate in October 2015. Twice during the debate, Mike Huckabee stated that he would focus on reducing healthcare costs by curing “diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s“. She was not only astounded, but actually angry that someone potentially in position to run for the most powerful job in the United States would willingly betray such a series of fundamental misunderstandings about the way that science worked—not only its conclusions but the actual process of scientific research.

And the truth is, right now, they have no incentive to fix that. If statements like Renacci’s are allowed to stand, there will be no need for them to face the fact that in their rush to promote their own economic theories, they are playing fast and loose with people’s lives.

Jim Renacci’s local office numbers are (330) 334-0040 (Wadsworth) and (440) 882-6779 (Parma).

*It should go without saying, but avoiding tanning and allowing yourself proper sun protection is a must, and this goes especially for kids (source). 

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