Imagine, if you will, Ralph Nader returning to his sparsely furnished apartment after a long day of jousting with business and government leaders. He sinks into a well-padded chair and slips into a dreamlike state. His mind takes him to a utopian world where governments have gone to great lengths to protect consumers - from greedy businesses and from themselves. Among the features of this consumer's paradise are:
- The government funds not only a national product testing organization but consumer advisory, lobbying and research organizations as well.- Consumers can go to government-supported neighborhood centers when they need information about a purchase or help with filing a complaint.
- The government appoints a high-level ombudsman to serve as a watchdog of the marketplace by negotiating directly with businesses, or when necessary, filing suits on behalf of consumers.
- Consumer groups are given prime-time television programs to discuss consumer issues and ways to avoid getting ripped off.
- No advertising, including political advertising, is allowed on television.
- Consumer education classes are taught in all schools - and students are required to take them.
- A combination of private and public funds support teams of trained safety experts who visit individual homes and search out potential safety hazards.
- Cigarettes, while not banned, must carry such warning labels as "smoking kills."
It may sound pretty far-fetched and idealistic. But this reverie is not as fanciful as it seems, says Robert N. Mayer, an associate professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah and author of a book on "The Consumer Movement: Guardians of the Marketplace." "Each of these policies is in place in at least one country outside the United States."
When it comes to consumer rights and protections, he says, the United States doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas.
"Many ideas and programs have been developed in the U.S. and been exported to other countries. This is something we can all be proud of. It's nice to know that we are not just dumping toxic waste and useless material on the Third World. But we can learn lots from other countries as well."
For example, you might expect tobacco advertising to be banned in a country like Iran. But what about Canada - a country very much like us? "Canada is much more strict with tobacco product advertising," says Mayer. "It's not only banned in all media but on billboards and even matchbook covers." Canada, particularly the province of Quebec, also has a ban on advertising aimed at children. This contrasts with the bill passed at the end of the last Congress, which places limits only on children's advertising - 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10 1/2 minutes per hour on weekends.
Most countries also have stricter drunken driving laws and penalties.
The chart on Page C1 lists other areas where the United States has been both a leader and a follower in consumer policy.
Areas where Americans might see some action in the near future, according to Mayer, include:
- Privacy. The United States has been a follower as far as governmental infringement of privacy but may take big leaps in regulation of business and privacy issues - such things as health records, credit records, shopper lists, etc.
- Mandatory seat belt laws. Utah and a number of other states have mandatory laws (albeit not very well enforced), but the United States as a whole is the only First World country without a national law.
- Environmental labeling. Some countries have a Green Seal or a Green Cross that is placed on products that are friendly to the environment. We are catching up with other countries, but there is a need for both regulation and standardization of terms.
For example, "what is a deceptive claim?" asks Mayer. If a product is recyclable but also takes up more space in the landfill if it is not recycled, is it environmentally friendly? Issues here are similar to what we have done with health issues, so we could well become a leader in this area.
U.S. consumer policy
SAFETY passive restraints in car mandatory seat belt use laws
55/65 mph speed limit rear seat shoulder harness seat
belts, rear window brake lights
smoking bans on airlines motorcycle helmet laws
systematic data collection drinking and driving penalties
on injuries/deaths(NEISS) daytime running lights
risk averse drug risk accepting drug approval
ban on hormones in meat
INFORMATION procompetitive use of ads regulation of advertising
--ads by professionals --sexist
--comparative ads --directed at children
--alcohol and tobacco bans
consumer advice centers
information on tv
many forms of information quality certification and
disclosure environmental impact labeling
--comparative price rotating cigarette warnings
COMPETITION industry-specific deregulation lesser barriers to operations
across industries, especially
unrestricted shop hours
fewer trade barriers
REPRESENTATION self-supporting private government-supported
consumer organizations consumer representation
REDRESS lemon laws privacy protection
(relative to other industrialized, western nations)