09/11/2013 10:27 EDT | Updated 11/11/2013 05:12 EST

Bill that could prevent cancer turns into political football in legislature

TORONTO - Legislation that would ban minors from using tanning beds turned into a political football Wednesday in Ontario's increasingly combative legislature.

The minority Liberals and the opposition parties accused each other of playing political games with an important piece of legislation that could prevent cancer.

The New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives have "needlessly delayed" the bill that was introduced in March, Health Minister Deb Matthews charged.

"I'm calling on both opposition parties to support it, to do the right thing, to put safety for people ahead of political games," she said, surrounded by a cancer survivor and representatives of cancer organizations.

Even when all three parties agreed Wednesday to let the bill pass second reading and go to committee, it didn't stop the recriminations.

The Liberals asked for a final vote right away, and when that went nowhere they pushed ahead with a motion to "guarantee" the legislation would go to a final vote by the end of the month.

The NDP blocked it, but said they'll urge the committee to adopt the same time limits so the bill will come to a final vote by the end of September.

They've cleared one hurdle, but that doesn't mean a final vote this month is a sure thing, said Matthews.

"It's very encouraging, but it's not a guarantee the way the motion would have been," she said.

The Tories and NDP insist they were always supportive of the bill and the Liberals are the ones who are wasting time with unnecessary motions.

The Liberals had the chance to pass legislation seven years ago when the ban was first proposed, said NDP health critic France Gelinas. They're now playing a "cynical game" on the backs of cancer patients, she said.

"This, to me, is disrespectful," said Gelinas, who has championed a ban for years in the legislature.

"I come from 25 years in health care, I have seen people fighting for their lives with melanoma and losing those battles. I would never do this. I would never do this."

Conservative Leader Tim Hudak didn't mince words either.

"I think this is all about political games, and it's sad that they're dragging out cancer patients to participate in political games," he said.

Asked whether she felt like a pawn, cancer survivor Annette Cyr — who stood near Matthews during the news conference — said she's starting to feel like that, but urged the parties to get on with business.

"You don't want people to go through this," she said. "This is needless and it's particularly tragic when you see young people developing (melanoma)."

The Tories said they want committee time so they can make some "straightforward" amendments to clarify the ban, including whether it would apply to the use of UV treatments at nail salons. But it won't take long, said Tory health critic Christine Elliott.

The Liberals are playing procedural football to distract from the ongoing controversy over the costly cancellation of gas plants and find an excuse to call an election, the Tories said.

One of the emails tabled to the gas plants committee showed the Liberals used the legislation to try to distract media attention from the scandal, said Tory house leader Jim Wilson.

They're trying to create a storm to bolster their argument that they can't get anything done in the legislature and need an election, said Elliott.

"There was no indication that anybody disagreed with this legislation and why they had to move forward with it in this way is, I think, a big miscalculation on their part," she said.

If it manages to survive the political wrangling, the bill would ban the sale of tanning services to people under the age of 18 and require operators to request identification from anyone who appears to be under 25.

The bill would also prohibit ads and marketing targeting minors and set steep fines of up to $25,000 for those who break the rules.

The Canadian Cancer Society said it's important to focus on youth because the risk of skin cancer increases by 75 per cent when tanning beds are used before age 35.

Operators would also be required to put up signs about the ban and the health risks of tanning.

The only exceptions would be medically proven light therapies, such as UVB therapy for vitiligo, which causes depigmentation of the skin.

Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have all either introduced or enacted legislation restricting the use of tanning beds by youth.