NEW YORK (PIX11) -- Tanning culture, influenced strongly by reality television and movie stars, banks of people paying for that perfect glow.
But what is becoming increasingly clear is that color-seeking customers are buying into the $5 billion-a-year business and paying for it with their lives.
Two years ago, Sharrel Paul, 31, was diagnosed with stage 3C melanoma, just shy of incurable stage 4 cancer.
“I started tanning in high school, off and on, for prom,” Paul said. “Tanning salons told me it was good for me.”
The fair-skinned redhead believed her 25 tanning sessions a year kept her from getting sunburned at the beach, until she noticed a small mole had changed and grown to about the size of a Skittle.
So far, she’s undergone six surgeries and has removed about 30 lymph nodes. She still has four tumors inside her body that are now shrinking with the help of an experimental drug from a clinical trial.
She said her regrets, however, have grown.
“I wish I could take it all back,” Paul said through tears. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to take it all back. It was an escape. It was good. It felt sexy and nice.”
The World Health Organization has dubbed these sunbeds cancer-causing devices, and the U.S. has instituted regulations to prevent underage tanners from getting into them, but some lawmakers and doctors say it's not enough.
Dr. Jennifer Stein, with NYU Langone Medical Center, is on the front lines of skin cancer. During the last 30 years, melanoma rates have steadily risen to the point where 10,000 people a year will die from it.
“We know that people that use tanning beds are 75 percent higher risk of having melanoma,” Stein said. “It’s a deadly form of skin cancer.”
“We’re seeing lots of melanoma in young women and we really think it’s from tanning beds,” she added.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney wrote the laws governing tanning bed usage in New York, and has just sponsored more legislation to make them illegal nationwide to anyone younger than 17.
“It’s the number one killer of young teenage women, melanoma. There is no cure for it. We know that science has told us that is it caused by these tanning beds,” Maloney said.
Laws in New York aim to curb that killer trend by mandating only those 18 and older with ID can tan, and only once a day. Seventeen-year-olds are allowed if they’re accompanied by a parent who will sign off a disclaimer.
But underage patrons are still getting into tanning salons.
With the help of two teens, PIX11 brought undercover cameras into salons to hear the sales pitches.
“Technically, it’s not dangerous,” one proprietor said.
Another said the color would last longer if the customer paid more money.
The laws governing tanning beds are strict, but the enforcement is now. In 18 months across the boroughs, PIX11 found just one inspection was performed in any salon and that only a tipster noted underage kids were buying tans.