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Senate bill would stop sale of reef stressing sunscreens

Statewide ban would take effect in 2021

Maui County’s question of whether to ban certain sunscreens may become moot if state lawmakers pass a bill banning those same products.

State lawmakers will vote on Senate Bill 2571 today, which would prohibit the sale and distribution of sunscreen containing oxybenzone, octinoxate, or both, without a prescription issued by a licensed health care provider. The ban would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

“It’s important that we try to find some effective sunscreens that are not reef stressors,” said West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker, who chairs the Senate Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health Committee.

“I think this will make a really smooth transition because this is in everybody’s consciousness.”

In December, the Maui County Council considered a bill to ban the sale and use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, UV-absorbing chemicals that scientists and lawmakers say are impacting local reefs and marine life. While the measure garnered a wave of community support, it stalled over legal issues, and the council postponed it to seek more research and input.

However, if the state bill passes, the counties would not be able to pass any laws prohibiting the “sale, use, labeling, packaging, handling, distribution or advertisement of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, or both, prior to Jan. 1, 2021.”

Council Member Elle Cochran, who proposed the bill at the county level, was in budget session and could not be reached for comment Monday.

Many of the businesses and hotels that would be impacted by the bill have already been making the switch to safer sunscreens, motivated by recent coral bleaching and the desire to promote an ecofriendly image.

Sailing tour company Trilogy had been mulling reef-safe sunscreen options for some time. But after widespread coral bleaching in the summers of 2014 and 2015 — which hit Maui particularly hard — the company “sped up our process,” Marketing Director Lianne Coon-Driessen said.

She said that while warmer temperatures were to blame for the coral bleaching events, “having chemicals in your ocean is not helping the matter either.”

“Maybe it’s the lesser of the two evils, but it’s still one of the evils,” she said.

The company started using Hawaiian Sol, a biodegradable sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. Tour boats offer the sunscreen for free on board, and the company sells the products on Lanai. Trilogy can’t prevent guests from using their own sunscreen, but they “highly encourage” the reef-safe version.

“When we take out a boatload of guests, it’s a teaching moment,” Coon-Driessen said.

Reef-safe brands tend to be pricier, she said. For example, a 6-ounce bottle of Hawaiian Sol’s Sol Guard SPF 50 costs $20. An 8-ounce bottle of Banana Boat Sport SPF 50 costs about $7 online at Target.

“Even though it does cost us more money, it’s the right thing to do,” Coon-Driessen said. “I also think the traveler these days, they’re more savvy to companies that are putting the environment first, so it just makes sense that a company would come into alignment as well.”

Alii Nui Sailing Charters and its umbrella company, Maui Dive Shop, switched last year to Raw Love Sunscreen, an all-natural mineral sunscreen made on Maui. The company offers the product on its tours and in its three stores in Kahana, Kihei and Wailea. Sales and Marketing Director Carol Contreras said even before the company made the switch, customers had been writing on comment cards suggesting they try reef-safe sunscreen.

Contreras said it’s “not easy to spend more money,” but she said she believes the switch to a different product is worth it.

“Hopefully if people use it more, maybe the price would come down,” she added.

She also supported the state bill to ban sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate.

“Obviously we’re using (reef-safe sunscreen), so we think it’s a good thing,” Contreras said. “But how the heck are they going to enforce it? Probably the boating community would be the easiest place to enforce it.”

Some hotels also have made the move toward reef-safe sunscreen. Theresa van Greunen, public relations director of Aqua-Aston Hospitality, said the consecutive years of coral bleaching and the rising reports on toxic sunscreens prompted the company to launch its #ForOurReef Initiative on Earth Day last year.

Aqua-Aston’s properties, which include the Aston Mahana at Kaanapali, the Maui Beach Hotel, Maui Condo & Home and the Maui Kaanapali Villas, are rolling out a trade-in program that allows guests to drop off harmful sunscreens at bins in the hotels. In exchange, they will receive a regular-sized Raw Elements sunscreen. The Aston Mahana at Kaanapali also offers reef-safe sunscreen dispensers.

Speaking about the county’s bill in February, van Greunen said it was “a great start to not only raise awareness on the harmful effects of oxybenzone, but we hope it will help push other companies and visitors to use reef-safe alternative sunscreen.”

She added that Aqua-Aston is considering using the disposed sunscreens in “some type of installation, continuing to spread awareness for the health of our coral reefs.”

One of the main issues county attorneys brought up with the bill at the county level was jurisdiction, since the state, not the county, has say over ocean activities. Baker said that doesn’t appear to be an issue if the state passes a bill of its own measure. The other challenge had been the federal commerce clause, which bars states from interfering with interstate commerce.

However, Baker said she “did not hear anything where people said that we were interfering with interstate commerce” when speaking with representatives of different sunscreen manufacturers.

“I think if we had cut (sales) off tomorrow, there might have been that issue,” Baker said. “That’s another reason for providing a little extra time. . . . The request that I heard most frequently was that they need time to reformulate their products.”

Some companies already have or are working on reef-safe versions, she said.

Baker acknowledged that research on sunscreens is ongoing, and that there are other long-term problems stressing out the reef, such as coastal erosion and global warming.

“But I think if you’re consciously introducing something that you know is a stressor for the reefs, why would you want to do that when they’re under enough stress as it is?” Baker asked.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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