"No photos," he says. "Nobody can know I'm here."
Quince, 32, is emerging from his weekly 11-minute tanning session at City Sun, an indoor tanning salon in New York's Greenwich Village. In a tailored navy suit, his hair gelled into place, Quince looks every part the sophisticated urbanite. Right down to a bronze glow radiating from above his collar.
"I'm a single, straight dude," he explains. "I'd never admit that I'm a tanner."
But he, and the 200 others who come through the doors of City Sun on this Wednesday afternoon, all cop to being tanning-bed aficionados. Some pay for a single session once or twice a year; others make tanning part of their weekly -- or even daily -- routine.
Most will speak openly on two fronts: To explain why they love it and, in hushed whispers, why it also terrifies them. But only a handful willingly offer up full names and photos. With the threat of a 10 percent tax and tighter FDA regulations, both because of ongoing concerns over tanning's potential health hazards, these customers are more worried than ever that friends and colleagues will catch onto what's become a dirty little secret.
'It's Nothing More Than a Sin Tax'
That secretive indulgence was once nothing more than a therapeutic hobby: Tanning originated in northern Europe during the 1970s, as sun-deprived locals flocked to UV-emitting chambers that were the next best thing to real rays.
Tanning's popularity exploded in the U.S during the 1980s; today, more than 25,000 indoor tanning salons are dotted across the country. The industry employs 160,000 people and rakes in nearly $3 billion a year, according to the Indoor Tanning Association.
But as indoor salon owners cashed in, ongoing research continued to link tanning to skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of the disease. Over the past decade, indoor tanning has increasingly been likened to other maligned habits, cigarette smoking in particular.
And with the passage of the new health care bill, government officials are prepared to take that comparison one step further. A 10 percent tax could be levied on indoor tanning as early as July, in an effort to offset some of the health care bill's multi-billion-dollar budget.
"It's nothing more than a sin tax," says Gabrielle Dahms, the red-haired, fair-skinned manager of City Sun, who tans twice a month for vitamin D exposure. "And 10 percent is a huge deal for someone trying to run a small operation. It's a business killer."
At City Sun, a session in the least expensive tanning bed already runs $19; time in the lux models costs nearly $50. And Dahms isn't only worried about customers balking at higher fees. The last thing indoor tanning needs, she says, is more stigma.
"People already come in like they're ashamed to be here," she says. "A tax suggests that nobody, not even the government -- who shouldn't be intervening on a personal choice anyway -- approves of what they're doing."
Cigarettes, Arsenic and Tanning Beds
A client's skin tone is evaluated on a first visit to a tanning salon. It's ranked from 1 to 7 to determine how long someone can spend under the lamps. A "1" is rare, only about 5 percent of the American population, and indicates very fair skin and a strong propensity to burning.
Usually, a pair of protective goggles are the only barriers between a tanner and the bed's dozens of UVA-emitting bulbs. In a single 10-minute session, they produce radiation that's comparable to 30 minutes of direct sun exposure.
Depending on who you ask, that's either a hazard or a health boon. The American Academy of Dermatology and the World Health Organization have categorized indoor tanning as a known carcinogen, much like arsenic or cigarette smoke.
"Use of sunbeds before the age of 35 is associated with a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma," the WHO's position statement reads.
But for tanning advocates, a few minutes of intense UVA exposure is medically advisable. Indoor tanning, much like sun exposure, boosts the body's production of vitamin D. A study published last year in the Archives of Internal Medicine estimates that 75 percent of Americans are deficient in the nutrient, which is increasingly being linked to important health benefits, including a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure.
A single tanning session yields as much vitamin D as 100 glasses of fortified milk, says City Sun owner Jan Meshon. He blames a powerful lobbying effort by dermatologists and the skin-care industry for "misinforming Americans."
"They get money to endorse SPF products and to tell people to fear sunlight," he tells AOL News. "It's led to a public myopia, where we're so fearful of one health issue -- skin cancer -- that we ignore the question of overall wellness."
Meshon acknowledges that indoor tanning carries risks, especially for those with Type 1 skin. At City Sun, they're advised to opt for a spray tan. But he bristles at comparisons between indoor tanning and cigarette smoking.
"Half of all people who smoke will die from the habit," he says. "I hardly think we can make that parallel with regards to a few sessions of UV exposure each week.
"It's like comparing the War of Grenada to World War II."
Cherry-Picking vs. Unfounded Claims
The FDA's current stance on indoor tanning is decidedly more relaxed than that of most health organizations. It convened this week to consider new regulations, including a ban on tanning for those younger than 18 and classification of tanning beds as Class 2 medical devices, which would mean warning labels and tougher monitoring.
Right now, indoor tanning beds are Class 1 devices, as are tongue depressors and Band-Aids.
At the heart of the debate is a meta-analysis published by the WHO in 2007. After evaluating several studies on tanning and melanoma, the organization concluded that skin cancer risk soared with repeated indoor tanning sessions.
But questions remain as to the accuracy of the evaluation. One's overall risk of developing melanoma is less than 1 percent, regardless of tanning bed use. Dr. Lisa Schwartz, a health statistic analyst and internist at Vermont's Veterans Affairs Medical Center, calls the WHO data "misleading."
"Melanoma is pretty rare and almost all the time, the way to make it look scarier is to present the relative change, the 75 percent increase, rather than to point out that it is still really rare," she told Delaware Online.
And one counter-analysis of the WHO evaluation, published in Dermato-Endocrinology, concludes that the studies in question included disproportionate numbers of participants with Type 1 skin, who were more likely to develop melanoma in the first place.
When Type 1 participants were removed from the analysis, increased skin cancer risk from tanning beds dropped to non-statistically significant levels.
Meshon thinks the WHO analysis is "a very clear case of cherry-picked data."
"If consumers did their research, they'd find that there are powerful groups pushing these scare tactics," he says. "Let's push knowledge, rather than misinformation."
Indeed, education is the promotion buzzword for most in the industry.
"Tanning indoors," one tanning association Web site reads, "is an educated choice!"
Slogans like that have raised the ire of the Federal Trade Commission, which in January enacted an order to prohibit the tanning industry from making what it deems "unfounded health claims."
"The messages promoted by the indoor tanning industry fly in the face of scientific evidence," David C. Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "The industry needs to do a better job of communicating the risks of tanning to consumers."
Under the Spotlight
Despite ongoing controversy, tanning remains a popular pastime for those aspiring to darker hues, or pursuing what they perceive to be health benefits of UV exposure. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that 28 million people use tanning beds each year. The vast majority of them -- 70 percent -- are Caucasian women.
Customers at City Sun seem divided on whether a tax would change their tanning routine, and on whether they buy into the suggested link between tanning and cancer.
"I think about how tanning makes me feel right now, which is great, relaxed and healthy," Quince says, although he notes that his younger sister stopped tanning because she worried about long-term repercussions.
As an owner of two tanning salons, Meshon is just worried about his bottom line -- and tired of being vilified for providing customers with something he considers as natural as air or water.
"All we're really selling here," he says, "is sunshine."