House Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, says he doesn't understand all the attention his bill is attracting. "How can anybody be against truth in advertising?" he asks.
Dubbed "The Utah Truth in Advertising Act," the bill has sparked a behind-the-scenes battle between two Utah supermarket chains that involves some of the state's most influential lobbyists.But despite the intense interest in the bill, nobody wants to discuss it. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue beg not to be quoted. Lawmakers want only to talk off the record.
Spokesmen for Smith's Food & Drug and Alpha Beta supermarkets are either not available or not willing to comment. Industry associations also have distanced themselves from the bill to avoid offending their members on either side of the issue. And consumer groups have yet to take a stand.
Dmitrich will say only that he is leaving it up to the lobbyists to come up with a compromise bill that can be referred to a House committee for a hearing as soon as this week.
The bill seems straight-forward enough. The description that begins the nine-page bill explains its purpose as defining deceptive advertising practices involving price comparisons and establishing a penalty for offenders.
What the bill really would do is prohibit Smith's Food & Drug from continuing to tout itself as "the certified low-price leader" among area supermarkets according to price comparisons done by independent auditors.
The practice apparently infuriated the head of American Stores Co., Sam Skaggs. The story is that Salt Lake resident Skaggs got tired of seeing the competition's newspaper advertisements and television commercials.
Local attorney Sue Vogel said she was hired by American Stores to draft what she described as consumer legislation. Vogel said changing the law so retailers can sue each other over deceptive advertising would help consumers.
"A retailer has a lot of incentive and usually has more money to fund a lawsuit than a consumer," she said. "Just because business is behind this, I don't think it can be looked at as not protecting the consumer."
Consumer advocates, however, are skeptical.> "It's a tremendous leap in faith to believe that the result of businesses fighting it out will help the consumer," said Robert Mayer, associate professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah. "It just doesn't work that way."
He said legislation that could "chill" advertising comparing prices among retailers is not good for consumers. On the other hand, comparative-price advertising that is deceptive also hurts consumers, he said.
Vogel, said she didn't consult state or private consumer agencies in draftingthe bill. Instead, she said she referred to statutes from other states and Federal Trade Commission standards.
Smith's, which has several lobbyists including state Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi fighting the bill, has proposed alternative legislation.
Vogel said provisions of Dmitrich's bill are being incorporated into Smith's alternative, the "Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act." Among the issues dividing the two sides is how to define an independent price assessment.> American Stores' position is that a retailer should tell consumers if they are associated with and/or paying for the person or firm doing the auditing. Smith's contends that hiring an accounting firm and randomly selecting 1,000 items to compare makes their audits independent.
Vogel said the attorneys for the supermarkets would meet for a second time on Wednesday to see if they are any closer to a compromise. Lobbyists on both sides say they believe a compromise is possible.> Besides Vogel, American Stores also is represented by former state Democratic Party Chairman John Klas, Gov. Norm Bangerter's former chief of staff, Reed Searle, and Doug Foxley, a longtime Bangerter supporter.
On Horiuchi's side is another of Bangerter's confidants, former state Sen. Paul Rogers, and attorney Jim Jardine, a Republican who helped lead the battle against the tax initiatives.
Horiuchi's opposition to a bill sponsored by the most powerful Democrat in the House has not gone unnoticed by Dmitrich. House Democrats say privately that not all of them are behind Dmitrich's bill, either.
Vogel said a Committee for Truth in Advertising has been organized by American Stores. The committee's designated consumer representative is Dolly Plumb.
Well-known in local and state political circles, Plumb said the Community Action Program, Common Cause and the American Association of Retired Persons are too busy to actively support the bill but won't oppose it. State consumer agenciesare also on her list of groups to be contacted.