Tacoman who lost his child to melanoma fought to restrict teens' use of tanning beds

Staff writerApril 6, 2014 


Peter Rasmussen, the father of Shelley Tomal who died of melanoma in 2002 at the age of 34, lobbied politicians in Olympia and helped pass a bill banning the use of indoor tanning beds for those under 18. Rasmussen shows off a picture of his daughter Shelly, at his Stadium district office, taken before her senior prom at Wilson High School.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER — Staff/Photographer

For five years, Peter Rasmussen went to Olympia because he wanted to prevent other parents from making the same mistake he did.

His daughter, Shelley Tomal, died of melanoma in 2002 when she was 34. As a teenager, she had used indoor tanning beds before special events and vacations, and her parents thought nothing of it.

Since his daughter’s death, Rasmussen has urged state lawmakers year after year to pass a law banning the use of indoor tanning beds for people under 18.

This year, the Tacoma architect got his wish. Under a new law that will go into effect June 12, minors in Washington will be prohibited from using a tanning bed unless they have a doctor’s prescription. Tanning salons could be fined $250 per violation.

For his efforts, Rasmussen will receive an advocate-of-the-year award this month from the Melanoma International Foundation, an organization he’s worked with for nearly a decade.

Rasmussen, who served on the Tacoma City Council from 1980 to 1988, said he didn’t understand the dangers of indoor tanning when his daughter was young. Had he known, he would have told her to stay away from tanning salons, he said.

“As she and her brother were growing up, we didn’t really think about tanning and the sun,” Rasmussen said. “You didn’t want not to have a tan. The paradigm was tan skin was beautiful skin.”

Tomal, a preschool teacher, left behind a husband and two young children.

Since 2005, Rasmussen has worked with the Melanoma International Foundation to help educate other parents and young people about the risks of indoor tanning. He also has testified in Olympia repeatedly since 2009.

Telling the story of his daughter’s death again and again has been far from easy.

“Each time I’d go down, it basically it was like digging at a scab again,” he said.

But Rasmussen kept doing it.

“When you have a loss like that, you feel you need to take some kind of action to do something,” Rasmussen said.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that women who use tanning beds more than once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop melanoma.

Another grim statistic: People who first use tanning beds before the age of 35 have up to a 75 percent higher chance of developing melanoma during their lifetimes, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization.

Six other states besides Washington have enacted bans on minors using tanning beds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Catherine Poole, the president and founder of the Melanoma International Foundation, said getting state laws passed to prevent minors from using tanning beds is a struggle, partly due to the power of the indoor tanning lobby.

She said she considers Rasmussen’s efforts instrumental in getting the legislation passed in Washington, which is why her organization is honoring him.

“He’s been relentless in trying to push this legislation through and absolutely never got discouraged,” Poole said.

State Sen. Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat who worked with Rasmussen for several years to pass the bill, said his story influenced lawmakers far more than statistics could.

“In the case of Peter and his family, to talk about the loss of a child really does open minds in a way that science sometimes can’t,” Darneille said.

Some tanning advocates would like to come back to Olympia next year and reduce the prohibited tanning age to 16 and younger.

Rasmussen said he and others will fight any attempt to make that change, which he said would be akin to letting minors smoke cigarettes.

“It’s a simple case of health, safety and welfare,” he said.

While Rasmussen’s daughter was the reason he started his work in Olympia, he said he has continued to fight out of concern for other children in Washington.

“It’s not so much about her, as making sure that future teens have a better chance than she did,” he said. “By this bill passing, lives are going to be saved, and that’s huge.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209 melissa.santos@ thenewstribune.com

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