Time to Strengthen Consumer Protection

AS the Bush administration settles in, it is clear that no coherent policy has yet emerged regarding regulatory agencies, especially the agency most battered by the Reagan administration - the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Established to protect consumers from unreasonably dangerous products, the CPSC has been the smallest federal health and safety agency since its inception. Under Ronald Reagan, it almost vanished - its staff slashed from 975 employees to 519, its budget from $42 million to $34.5 million, and area offices from 14 to three. We would like to offer President Bush two simple proposals to help the commission better protect American consumers - at no extra cost to the taxpayers.

First, strengthen an existing provision in the law which requires companies to notify the commission if they have produced or distributed a potentially dangerous product. Second, remove the ``gag rules'' that prevent the agency from providing useful product safety information to the public.

At agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the hazards-reporting provision seems to work fairly well. Not so at the consumer agency.

Consider these facts: The commission has jurisdiction over 10,000 to 15,000 products distributed by over 1 million companies. Consumers annually file 60,000 to 70,000 lawsuits alleging serious injury or death caused by defective products. Many, if not most, of these fall under the commission's jurisdiction. Each year, 36 million consumers are injured, and 28,000 are killed in consumer-product-associated accidents.

Notwithstanding these statistics, the CPSC receives fewer than 200 reports annually of potential product hazards. By comparison, the FDA annually receives over 18,000 such reports regarding medical devices alone. This indicates massive underreporting, and years may pass before the commission discovers a safety problem and pushes a company to take remedial measures.

Even though the law requires all potential safety defects to be reported, it does not require reports if injuries or deaths associated with a product are the result of consumer carelessness. Given the limited enforcement resources of the commission and the difficulty of challenging a company's judgment about its product's potential for harm, companies are all too willing to take their chances by not reporting.

One useful reform would be to remove the ambiguity in the law that companies seize upon to justify not reporting. Our suggestion: Every time a product liability lawsuit is filed against a consumer product in which it is alleged that a defect in the product caused an injury or death, the company involved must report the case to the CPSC. At least it will then know about the case and make its own decision whether or not there is a serious hazard.

Our second proposal would save taxpayer dollars. Under current law, the CPSC - alone among federal health and safety agencies - operates under two ``gag rules'' that prevent it from releasing information about unsafe products. One rule essentially prevents the agency from sharing with the public the ``potential hazard'' reports submitted by companies. The Chamber of Commerce asserts that companies would be more willing to report potentially dangerous products if the public did not have access to these reports. Wrong. Once the gag rule was enacted, potential hazard reports dropped dramatically. What's worse, the public is denied any knowledge of these reports unless the companies agree to the release - invariably months later, if at all.

Another section of the Consumer Product Safety Act requires the agency, before releasing any information that might identify a specific manufacturer, to permit the manufacturer to comment on the release. The consumer commission must then take ``reasonable steps'' to ensure that the information is accurate and fair - often an expensive and time-consuming process.

Anyone wishing to know whether highway-safety agency has complaints regarding an automobile need only ask and he or she will be told immediately. A similar request at the CPSC is guaranteed to take months, if not years, to produce the information, if then.

The rationale is to prevent the release of false information. But with the exception of the consumer agency, Congress has always felt that providing lifesaving information was paramount, and that any agency abuses were better dealt with through congressional oversight. There is no good reason for the CPSC to continue to be the exception.

There's something ominous about the government's deciding which documents the public can see and which it can't. With rare exceptions, government simply shouldn't be in the business of reviewing and censoring information ``for our own good.''

Removing the commission's gag rules would save taxpayer dollars, since processing information requests consumes hundreds of thousands of dollars and many staff years. Instead of spending these resources playing nanny, the commission should devote them to saving lives.

In suggesting these measures we are not arguing that the agency doesn't need more money - it does and badly. But for the moment, let's breathe some life into the agency so it can save more of ours.

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