Seeing red: Local tanning salon owners feel burned by new tax

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

COVINGTON -- The first tax under the health care reform law went into effect July 1, and local tanning salon owners say it will harm their businesses.

The "tanning tax" levies a 10 percent tax on tanning bed use and is predicted to raise $2.7 billion nationwide over 10 years.

Pete Fouche, owner of Myx Mega Tan on Crowell Road in Covington sums up the new tax in two words: "It sucks," he said.

"The tanning industry is usually mom and pop stores, as we are. There are very few large franchises," Fouche said.

The impact to small business owners will be substantial, he predicts, and the timing couldn't be worse. The tax went into effect during the period tanning salon operators refer to as "JASON," an acronym for the months of July, August, September, October and November, when tanning business hits a lull. Peak tanning season is February through May.

"Now we're getting slammed by the beginning of JASON and by people going, 'We don't want another tax,'" Fouche said. He said the fact that the tax is related to the health care law will be enough to cause some customers to boycott tanning.

And, "It's racist and sexist," Fouche said, claiming it targets a specific demographic.

"Ninety-seven percent of my customers are white females," he said.

Fouche said he's been provided with very little details about how the tax will work, other than that it must be paid to the IRS quarterly. There's no other option but to pass it on to customers, salon operators say.

Teri Skelton, owner of Supreme Tan on U.S. Highway 278 in Covington, said customers are already angry over the tax. On Thursday, the first day it went into effect, customers were already threatening not to return to her shop, she said.

"Due to the economy, we just closed one salon. I don't know what this will do to the remaining salons. I'm hoping we'll be in business next year," Skelton said.

She agrees that the tax targets a racial demographic.

"It's an unfair tax. It's a very biased tax. Who tans? White people tan. So I consider it very biased," she said.

Plus, Skelton said it's unfair that gyms with tanning beds won't be taxed, nor medical offices where UV-ray treatment is used. Skelton said some people come to her business to treat conditions such as eczema, because it costs about a third of what they'd pay at the doctor's office.

The government maintains the indoor tanning industry is peddling a known cancer risk. The tanning tax wasn't in early versions of the health care bill. It was added after dermatologists persuaded senators to substitute it for a proposed tax on cosmetic surgery.

"It was a revenue source that could have an overall impact on the country's health," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who oversaw the final language.

Dr. Jeffrey Sosman, an oncologist who leads Vanderbilt University's melanoma program, said health authorities would be happy to see tanning bed salons shuttered because of the tax.

"It would be nice if it were a nail in the coffin," Sosman told the Associated Press. "The more it can discourage usage of these tanning beds, the better."

But Shirley Berry of Covington, who just completed chemotherapy for lung cancer and quickly resumed her tanning regimen, said it's not the government's place to regulate her choices.

"I don't think the government has anything to do with telling me whether I can and whether I can't tan ... I've been tanning for as long as I can remember. I have the right to tan," Berry said. She said if the tax winds up putting a dent in her pocketbook, she may have to cut back on her visits.

Melissa Bowen, also of Covington, said she won't let the tax deter her, as it will likely mean only about $4 extra per month out of her pocket. But that doesn't mean she's happy with it.

"I know what the risks are every time I lay in that tanning bed. It's a risk I'm willing to take. It's a personal choice. I shouldn't be taxed an additional charge because they feel it's not healthy for an individual like me to tan," she said.

The Indoor Tanning Association continues to lobby for a repeal of the tax.

"I hardly think this is the appropriate time to raise taxes on our nation's smallest businesses, the very people who can least afford new and complicated taxes," said Dan Humiston, president of the association. "This directly violates the promise President Obama made not to raise taxes on the middle class. A tax like this could be devastating to thousands of 'mom and pop' tanning businesses across the country."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.