|English | Español||December 13, 2013 | Issue #54|
Palin’s Private Tanning Bed in the Alaska Governor’s Mansion
One of Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin’s First Actions as Alaska Governor Was to Equip the State Building with a Tanning Bed
By Al Giordano and Bill Conroy
Governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has a darkening secret in the Alaska Governor’s Mansion.
The $400 haircut became emblematic of Edwards’ inauthenticity problem. It fueled suspicion and critique that he wasn’t quite the sincere man of the people that his campaign had projected, and added a “vanity vs. substance” narrative to everything he did and said. Sometimes it’s the small things that unravel the thread on big truths. But can you imagine the surprise had the public learned that Edwards had also installed an expensive tanning bed in his mansion?
Former Senator John Edwards’ $400 haircut began to raise issues of his authenticity as a populist.
But guess who did?
The Republican nominee for vice president, Governor Sarah Palin, it turns out, is a pioneer of the Great Indoors:
“The governor did have a tanning bed put in the Governor’s Mansion,” Roger Wetherell, chief communications officer of Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, confirmed to this newspaper. “It was done shortly after she took office [in early 2007] and moved into the mansion.”
The home tanning bed in the Governor’s Mansion in Juneau adds a trivial fact among the many, big and small, coming to light about the right-wing’s latest celebrity, McCain’s gamble to try and wrestle the election away from Democrat Barack Obama, but one that – tug the thread – leads to other questions about elitism, ethics, public health and the insufferable phoniness that plagues politics and politicians.
The Alaska Governor’s Mansion in Juneau.
Erica Fagerstrom, manager of the 96-year-old state mansion, for example, was not in a talking mood.
Fagerstrom eagerly told us about all the contracting work being done to keep the mansion up to code, the plumbing and “water issues” for the family now living on the third floor. But asked repeatedly whether a tanning bed was also part of her charge, she responded only that, “a tanning bed is not part of the ongoing projects,” and pleaded that she had to hang up immediately as her workday had come to an end.
An expensive, specialized machine, unaffordable and out of reach to most American homes, utilized to artificially enhance one’s appearance, provides an apt metaphor for political image-making in campaigns. In fact, such an energy-hungry appliance, in most cases, requires a dedicated circuit, a voltage regulator and 220 volt wiring (and for some deluxe models, a hardwire connection to the power source) — a set-up not found in 96-year-old homes.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain recently said, of Palin, “she knows more about energy than probably anybody in the United States of America.” That kind of hyperbole can be expected from the guy who picked her out of relative obscurity, but so far both McCain and Palin have claimed that Alaska supplies “20 percent” of the United States’ energy, when, according to factcheck.org, that figure is “not even close… Alaska’s share of domestic energy production was 3.5 percent,” and just 2.4 percent of total domestic energy consumption. Okay, so Palin may not know more about energy than other national leaders, but the revelation that her newly re-wired Governor’s Mansion includes a tanning bed may indicate that in this time of high oil prices forcing most Americans to conserve energy, Palin consumes more energy than the others.
Tanning beds of the kind used by tanning salons can cost upwards of $35,000 each.
Since governors (and vice presidents) are generally expected to be healthy role models for the nation’s youth, Governor Palin’s darkening secret raises Edwardsian questions about her habit, which medical professionals and organizations have identified as a threat to public health, a cause of skin cancer, and a problem of abuse and addiction among teenagers and others through a condition that they call “tanorexia.”
Tanning salons are an absolute fad, especially popular among high school and college students, most of whom can’t afford to own such a machine – which can cost upwards of $35,000 – at home. But that’s what the spas and salons provide: An average indoor tanning session will set you back about $7 in Alaska — though special packages can run up past $20, according to Alaskan tanning salon operators interviewed by this newspaper. A 2004 survey sponsored by Wolff System Technology, a major manufacturer of tanning bed parts, found that the average age of those clients is 32 and that it’s increasingly a passion of men, who now account for about 30 percent of all indoor tanners.
The industry trade publication, “Looking Fit,” says there are some 20,000 “professional indoor-tanning salons” nationwide, dozens of them in Alaska.
“The U.S. indoor tanning industry is generating $5 billion annually through the provision of controlled tanning sessions to more than 30 million Americans,” the publication states in 2008 report about the “state of the industry.”
“It gives you a lift, makes you look and feel good, and it relaxes you,” says Erin Wiese, manager of Color Me Tan, which operates two salons in Anchorage.
But medical authorities, including the American Academy of Dermatology, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) actively warn that tanning beds increase the risk of skin cancer.
Some individuals do turn to tanning beds to treat chronic skin diseases, such as psoriasis, but even in those cases, most dermatologists only recommend that course of action as a treatment of last resort — since tanning beds emit far more damaging than healing energy in the UV light spectrum.
The American Cancer Society is quite clear on the matter, and warns that skin cancer is a bigger public health threat than lung or breast cancer, and that it regards tanning machines as in the same category as cigarettes:
Skin cancer is the most common of all cancer types. There are more than 1 million skin cancers (melanoma and non-melanoma) diagnosed each year in the United States. That’s more than prostate, breast, lung, colon, uterus, ovary and pancreas cancers combined. Unfortunately, the number of skin cancers has been on the rise steadily for the past 30 years…
Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps
Many people believe that the UV rays of tanning beds are harmless. This is not true. Tanning lamps give out UV rays. Health experts advise people to avoid sunlamps and tanning beds.
The cancer risk is deemed especially acute for teenagers who use tanning beds, according to this 2006 New York Times story:
“In the last two years, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Dermatology have labeled tanning beds as the health-peril equivalent of cigarettes. All have urged prohibiting their use by minors.”
Gov. Palin’s use of a mansion-based tanning system even goes against the judgment of her state’s own public health agency, which issued a report, called the Alaska Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan 2005-2010, that describes cancer as “the leading cause of death in Alaska,” and specifically calls for encouraging “regulations warning consumers about tanning beds and the risk of skin cancer.”
Missouri University recently became the latest school to attempt to ban tanning beds on campus, due to the health risks for students.
Other health organizations warn of young people becoming addicted to tanning bed sessions, and label the condition as “tanorexia”:
Researchers at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia examined the tanning habits of 400 college students aged 18 to 24, using the same framework that defines substance addictions. They found that 27 per cent showed signs of “tanorexia,” based on answers to questions like “Do you think you need to spend more and more time in the sun to maintain your perfect tan?” and “Does this (your belief that tanning can cause skin cancer) keep you from spending time in the sun or going to tanning beds?”
Then, of course, is the fact that Palin’s running mate, presidential candidate John McCain, is himself a survivor of skin cancer and has been active legislating and advocating for its prevention. In 2001, he wrote a cover essay for Newsweek: “My Battle With Skin Cancer.”
It should be noted that not all tanning bed users are in it to bronze their skin: There are also those that utilize tanning beds as a kind of self-medication for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of mental depression thought to be related to the relative lack of daylight in the winter months, and more prevalent the farther from the Equator one lives:
“According to the American Psychiatric Association, for a diagnosis to qualify as SAD, it must meet four criteria: depressive episodes at a particular time of the year; remissions or mania/hypomania also at a characteristic time of year; these patterns must have lasted two years with no nonseasonal major depressive episodes during that same period; and these seasonal depressive episodes outnumber other depressive episodes throughout the patient’s lifetime.”
However, that, too, is a matter of controversy in the medical community. The American Academy of Family Physicians, for example, warns: “Tanning beds shouldn’t be used to treat SAD. The light sources in tanning beds are high in ultraviolet (UV) rays, which harm your eyes and your skin.
(Governor Palin has not released her medical records for public view.)
Color Me Tan manager Erin Wiese and Ashley Mensik, owner of the 11-year-old A Touch of Sun tanning salon in Fairbanks, both say it is not at all typical or ordinary in Alaska for individuals to install tanning beds in their homes.
“I don’t think it’s normal for people to have a tanning bed in their house,” Wiese says. “It’s expensive,” adding that it can cost up to $35,000 for one bed— and that doesn’t include the cost of spare parts, like bulbs, and the expense of special electrical wiring for the beds.
Mensik agrees with Wiese’s assessment, but adds that it is possible to get an “entry-level” tanning bed for a salon for about $10,000.
Mensik also says the cost of tanning equipment in Alaska is enhanced because of the shipping hurdles.
“It’s hard to get large equipment up here,” she explains. “There’s a lot of shipping issues in general. … And then there’s the maintenance on top of it. There are no [tanning-bed repair] experts here [in Fairbanks].”
Still, Mensik says it’s a good business that generally attracts two types of clientele based on her experience in the business. In the first group, she says, are individuals who use indoor tanning as a type of “light therapy” during the dead of winter to ward off the arctic blues. The other group, she explains, are those individuals planning vacations south of Alaska.
Mensik concedes the obvious: that there is a “vanity factor” involved as well, since no one likes to look like a ghost on the beach. She stresses, though, that the typical indoor tanning customer base in Alaska includes both males and females.
“I’ve had clients who are Alaskan construction workers with beards who know they will be working long shifts and then going home to sleep,” she says. “So they will find a way to cram in a tanning session in between because they know they won’t be seeing much sun.”
Alaska has a very strict ethics law governing public officials. In the case of the governor, the Alaska attorney general, who oversees the state’s Department of Law, enforces the ethics laws.
Judy Bockman, an Alaskan assistant attorney general who administers the states ethics act, says the governor is mandated to disclose any gift exceeding $150 in value if that gift is in anyway connected to her official position or if it is intended to influence the performance of her public duties. And a gift is defined, she says, “as the transfer of property to a public official at less than full value.”
Bockman says she was not aware of Palin’s tanning bed. That fact would seem to indicate that the governor did not list it as a gift, since such disclosures are to be filed with “a designated supervisor,” which in the case of the governor is the state’s attorney general.
Wetherell of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities confirms that fact as well, indicating that he was informed by the Governor’s Office that Palin purchased the tanning bed “with her own money, so there was no need for an ethics disclosure.”
Wetherell says that Palin bought the tanning bed from a health club, adding that it was not a brand new machine. The fact that the tanning bed was acquired from a business also seems to indicate that it was a commercial model — which can command a hefty price tag as Wiese and Mensik point out.
Wetherell was not able to provide the name of the health club, the model of the tanning bed, nor the price Palin paid for the machine, which means there is no way of verifying, at this point, if Palin did, in fact, purchase it with her own money, and if so, whether she received a discount off market value exceeding $150 in deference to her position as governor.
If, in fact, the tanning bed was donated to Palin or her family, or provided at discount exceeding $150 as a favor due to her position, based on Bockman’s explanation of the state’s ethics law, it would have legally had to appear on her state ethics disclosure filings.
Bockman also explained that it is incumbent on a public official to disclose a gift in any case where that official suspects he or she received special treatment.
“There is an absolute bar against taking any gift that is inappropriate,” she says.
In any event, the examination of a potential ethics violation is handled on a case-by-case basis based on the particular circumstances of the event, Bockman adds.
“We don’t judge the appearance of impropriety,” Bockman says. “We look at the facts.”
The name of the health club that allegedly sold the tanning bed to Palin, its model and cost, form of payment, and that of the state contractor who did the electrical upgrade work at the Governor’s Mansion, are subject of continuing reporting by this newspaper. (Have a lead or a tip? Send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Stipulated: that the Alaska Governor installed a personal tanning bed is hardly on the level of importance of her policy stances and record in public office. But like a previous national office aspirant’s $400 haircut, it’s the sort of fact that can become emblematic of a larger narrative about inauthenticity, insincerity and overblown claims of “everyday people” street cred that have been floated by the McCain-Palin campaign about its newest member.
On the bright side, the long overlooked “tanorexic lobby” – the industries that make the machines, their representatives and lobbyists in Washington – may finally be able to step outdoors and into the non-artificial sunlight, having one of their own through which to promote their product to a new generation of youth, a celebrity endorsement that could end up a heartbeat away from the presidency of the United States of America.
See new updates to this story – and many reader comments about it – at our blog, The Field.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism