Lawmakers take aim at sunscreen ban

In light of Key West banning the sale of sunscreens that contain chemicals believed to harm coral reefs, Florida lawmakers are fast-tracking proposals that would undo the local regulation.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said Monday that Key West is sending “mixed signals” to people about the importance of sunscreen and that his bill is meant to send a clear message to the “country and the world” that the use of sunscreen is encouraged in the Sunshine State.

“Unfortunately, with all of the wonderful things that come with our beaches and our sunshine, we also rank second in the nation for the highest rate of new melanoma cases,” said Bradley, who described sunscreen as the “first line of defense” against skin cancer.

Under Bradley’s bill (SB 172), which was approved Monday by the Senate Innovation, Industry and Technology Committee, the state would block local regulation of over-the-counter drugs and cosmetics, which would include all sunscreens. Regulation would be determined by the state.

If the “preemption” bill is approved by the Republican-dominated Legislature, Key West would not be able to enforce an ordinance banning the distribution of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which studies have found can contribute to coral bleaching. The new rules are set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Attorney and lobbyist Jason Unger, representing the city of Key West on Monday, urged the Senate panel to vote down the proposal, arguing the sunscreen ban is meant to protect coral reefs, which are essential to the city’s tourism-driven economy.

Deborah Foote, director of government affairs for the Sierra Club of Florida, said the state should invest in research that would look at the concentration of the two chemicals in the waters surrounding the coral reefs in Key West, rather than take away local control over sunscreen regulations.

“The state does have a compelling interest to protect the Florida reef, now that it is investing millions of state and federal dollars in coral reef restorations,” Foote told the committee.

According to peer-reviewed studies compiled this year by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s research arm, oxybenzone, and octinoxate in sunscreens have negative effects on corals and marine life when exposed to “concentration levels generally not observed in nature.”

Bradley, the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, took that as a vindication of his proposal.

“You have to apply (the chemicals) directly, in an intense matter to the coral reefs over a long period of time in a little, small space. We are talking about a large ocean around the coral reefs here, so the OPPAGA study supports what we are doing right here,” Bradley said.

The study, conducted at the direction of the Legislature, said the chemicals are not only found in sunscreens. They may also be found in seawater from “wastewater effluent, leaching from plastics, and leaching from hull paints on ships,” researchers noted.

Hurricanes, warmer ocean temperatures, air pollution, and land pollution are also a “number of stressors (that) would continue to affect corals,” the OPPAGA research found.

While environmental groups support Key West’s ban on certain sunscreens, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Retail Association and the Florida Society of Dermatology and Surgery supported Bradley’s bill.

An entity that did not speak about the bill Monday but is lobbying the issue is Johnson & Johnson, which makes several sunscreens with oxybenzone.

The pharmaceutical giant has five people with the lobbying firm Smith Bryan & Myers working on the bill, according to lobbying disclosure forms.

Bradley’s bill is filed for the 2020 legislative session, which starts in January. But during this spring’s 2019 session, Johnson & Johnson also lobbied for a similar bill, sponsored by Sen Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine. The bill died at the end of the session.

In April, Hutson said he was championing the bill because he is a “big proponent of making sure people have sunscreen.” Bradley echoed that sentiment Monday, while also chastising Key West for prohibiting the use of popular sunscreens.

Bradley said the Key West ban would discourage people from protecting themselves from the sun because “the only sunscreen that would be affordable is these luxury boutique sunscreens, which sometimes don’t work as well as mainstream sunscreen.”

If Bradley’s bill is approved by the Legislature, it could face a test from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who this year vetoed legislation that sought to ban local governments from prohibiting the sale of plastic straws.

DeSantis’ rejection of the bill was a win for environmental groups and local governments that had passed ordinances prohibiting single-use straws in their communities.

“These measures have not, as far as I can tell, frustrated any state policy or harmed the state’s interests,” the governor wrote in a veto message in May.

Bradley's proposal has already passed two committees and only has to pass the Senate Rules Committee before it can get a floor vote after the 2020 session starts. In the House, an identical bill (HB 113) is scheduled to be heard for the first time Wednesday in the Health Quality Subcommittee.

© 2019 The News Service of Florida