LINCOLN — A group of Nebraska tanning salons has gotten burned in its attempt to fight an anti-tanning campaign.

The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit claiming that the campaign, The Bed is Dead, had defamed the salons and disparaged their business with “false or misleading” statements.

While calling the decision disappointing, a tanning industry spokesman said the suit succeeded in discouraging local radio stations from playing the campaign’s public service announcements and in prompting the campaign to tone down its statements.

But Robin Carlson, an attorney for the Nebraska Cancer Coalition, which mounted the campaign, disputed claims that any changes had been made in the website after the lawsuit was filed.

She said the coalition was “thrilled with the (court’s) decision affirming the right of cancer groups to continue to inform consumers of avoidable health and safety hazards.”

The Cancer Coalition, led by Drs. Alan Thorson and David J. Watts of Omaha, launched the anti-tanning campaign in 2014, according to the ruling.

The effort focuses on educating teenage girls and their parents about the dangers of indoor tanning, particularly about tanning’s role in causing the potentially deadly skin cancer melanoma.

The tanning salons — including JB and Associates, Aline Bae Tanning, Maple 110 Tanning, Tanning Horizons, Wilson Bonn and Max Tan — filed suit in Douglas County District Court in 2015. At the time, the group accounted for about 70% of the tanning salons in the Omaha and Lincoln markets.

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The group said customers asked questions about their facilities and about indoor tanning generally after visiting the campaign’s website, which featured statements such as: “Indoor tanning is thought to cause 170,000 skin cancers annually” and “Tanning before age 35 raises your risk of melanoma by nearly 60%.”

The lawsuit alleged that such statements violated Nebraska’s Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act by disparaging their product.

It also accused the Cancer Coalition of defamation for making statements designed to destroy their businesses, reputations and livelihood.

Chris Sternberg, a spokesman for the American Suntanning Association, said the suit was the first of its kind nationally and employed some groundbreaking legal arguments. He said the salons’ goal was to encourage public discussion about the “importance of sensible UV (ultraviolet light) exposure.”

The lower court dismissed the salons’ case, saying the statements in question were about the tanning industry generally and not specifically directed at the businesses that filed the lawsuit.

On Friday, the state high court agreed. The court said both defamation claims and disparagement claims require that statements be targeted at particular businesses.

The court said nothing in the anti-tanning campaign mentioned specific salons or indicated that those filing the lawsuit had been the targets.

Rather, the court said, the statements concerned the broader industry.

In support, the decision cited a 1983 product disparagement case brought by a cigarette-maker in Illinois over statements made about cigarettes during a newscast.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the manufacturer’s claim and said, “The [defendant’s] broadcast does not suggest that [the plaintiff’s] cigarettes are defective, or any more unhealthful than other brands of cigarettes.”

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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