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Florida Senators Want To Prevent Enforcement Of Key West Ban On Sunscreen That Harms Corals

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Joe Shlabotnik
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a bill that would threaten local governments with hefty fines if they prohibit the sale of certain sunscreens, though lawmakers dropped an initial part of the bill that would have prevented local officials from banning plastic straws.

The bill targets sunscreens in an attempt to keep Key West from enforcing an ordinance that would ban the sale and use of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, a chemical that a study says harms coral reefs. That ordinance is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Three powerful companies with a stake in the sale of sunscreens are registered to lobby on the bill (SB 588), sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine. They are Johnson & Johnson, which makes multiple sunscreens with oxybenzone, Publix and Walmart, stores that sell the product.

Hutson said he is a “big proponent of making sure people have sunscreen” and believes local bans on certain types of sunscreens are “silly” because the substances protect people from ultraviolet rays. He said he wants to make sure bans are based on “science and data.”

Johnson & Johnson makes a similar argument. The company said concerns about certain sunscreen chemicals affecting coral reefs “have led to widespread misinformation about the safety of many sunscreens in the marine environments.” It added that there is “no credible science” to show a link between sunscreens and coral reef bleaching.

But a study conducted by a team of scientists, including a professor from the University of Central Florida, suggested that oxybenzone is killing coral reefs and deforms their DNA.

Under the bill, approved Tuesday by the Senate Community Affairs Committee, any local government that attempts to enforce a sunscreen ban would be fined $25,000.

The Senate budget plan for next fiscal year includes $50 million for the tourism-marketing agency Visit Florida, and a proposal would bar the agency from promoting communities that have banned sunscreens. But Hutson told The News Service Florida that after speaking with Dana Young, a former state senator and head of the tourism agency, he is dropping that proposal.

Key West is the only Florida city that has approved a local ordinance banning sunscreens, but Miami Beach is mulling a similar ban.

Huston said Wednesday he also wants President Bill Galvano to request studies on sunscreen impacts on coral reefs and the environmental impact of plastic straws. The studies would be conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the research arm of the Legislature. A spokeswoman said Galvano will approve the studies.

The studies would put a pause on any local bans on plastic straws and sunscreens, Hutson said.

The straw issue has gained widespread attention in Florida and other states, as local governments have sought to ban straws because of environmental concerns.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade County Democrat, said he has already taken the lead on talking with municipalities in his district on the plastic-straw issue. He said he has urged them to have plastic straws available as an option for customers.

Thts is particularly important to people with disabilities, said Olivia Babis, a public policy analyst with Disability Rights Florida. She said paper straws, the alternative to plastic straws, can be a choking hazard for people with disabilities.

“Preemption (of local straw bans) is something that we need for vulnerable communities, and this is definitely a vulnerable community,” Babis said.

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