Three years ago, the Federal Trade Commission ordered singer Pat Boone to pay $6,000 to dissatisfied consumers who bought an acne lotion based on Boone's unproven advertising claims that Acne Statin had been medically and scientifcally tested and was superior to all other acne preparations--as well as soap.
Now, if the new chairman of the FTC has his way, Boone will soon be able to repeat his claims--and without the risk of being fined for making such unsubstantiated statements.
Meanwhile, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture goes ahead with a proposal to change some of its meat-labeling rules, consumers will have a more difficult time knowing what is in the processed meats they buy. No longer will meat processors have to put special labels on any mechanically deboned meats to say these products contain bone particles.
Also slated for change is a rule that would have required auto manufacturers to design odometers in such a way that used-car buyers would know if the mileage had been tampered with. The requirement would have added no more than $1.50 to the price of a car. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed its revocation on the ground it has nothing to do with safety.
Steadily and quickly, the Reagan administration is rolling back more than 15 years of consumer-protection regulations. From the FTC to the Food and Drug Administration to USDA, Reagan appointees are reversing, suspending and reviewing dozens of rules that had represented some of the biggest achievements of the consumer movement.
The biggest success--the requirement that all cars be installed with airbags or automatically closing seat belts by 1984--was revoked only 10 days ago when the head of NHTSA, Raymond A. Peck, announced his conclusion that the automatic belts would not provide significantly more protection than the manual belts now in most cars.
What's more, the existence of some of the very agencies that were created by the consumer movement are in jeopardy. Earlier this year, the administration proposed the abolition of the nine-year-old Consumer Product Safety Commission. Although Congress failed to go along with this proposal, it did agree to the president's proposal to cut the CPSC's budget by 30 percent--necessitating layoffs of 145 of the agency's 728 employes.
The budget for the 11-year-old traffic-safety agency, NHTSA, was also signficantly trimmed--from $239 to $150 million.
Reagan also tried to cut out the 66-year-old antitrust division of the Federal Trade Commission--a move that was quickly blocked by Congress.
"These rollbacks really cover decades of building protections," complains Sandra L. Willett, executive vice president of the National Consumers League. "Many of the rules have been in place for 10 to 15 years, but the activity to get them has gone on much longer than that. The massive procedure to get rid of them is happening quickly and irrationally--generated mostly by business complaints. The net result, I believe, is that we're going to see short-term cost savings translated into future signficant costs."
Administration officials, needless to say, disagree with this assessment. "The ultimate aim of what we're doing is to improve the welfare of consumers," says Christopher C. DeMuth, the new chief of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the division that is overseeing Reagan's regulatory-reform drive.
"We don't have any intention to subvert any of the goals of consumer or other regulatory programs," DeMuth adds. Rather, he says, the administration is simply trying to correct some of the difficulties of the many consumer programs in the past which have been "well-intentioned but have produced results that are very different and the opposite of what they were intended for."
The president's chief consumer adviser, Virginia H. Knauer, adds that the president's campaign is attacking the consumer's "number one problem"--inflation. "Consumers are smart enough to know every time you put a regulation on, it's going to drive up the cost to consumers. . . . The first priority of this administration is turning the economy around. I think that will be a great benefit to consumers."
Consumer advocates, however, fear that the administration is using the economy as a guise to get rid of all the safety rules that have become the bane of business.
"The budgetary problems are being used as an excuse to eliminate various consumer programs," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The rollback is being conducted on several fronts, notes Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America.
Unlike most other administrations that tried to change the direction of government through its appointments, Reagan is using a variety of additional tools to make his mark on the course of regulatory and consumer programs.
First, and most obvious, is his use of the budget cuts to eliminate many consumer programs. By cutting the CPSC's budget by 30 percent, the agency is being foreclosed from conducting many of its product-safety investigations--investigations that could ultimately lead to rules. The same holds true of the FTC, NHTSA and other agencies.
Second, and equally prominent, is the administration's overall drive to get rid of existing rules. The campaign is so important to the administration's overall economic program that it is being overseen by Vice President George Bush, who heads the newly created Task Force on Regulatory Reform.
Thus, in addition to repealing the airbag and odometer rules, NHTSA is also considering rolling back its design requirement for bumpers to protect cars from low-speed collisions.
The FDA has already slowed its consideration of mandatory new nutritional labels for food products--especially those high in sodium content--and is now weighing elimination of a new program that would have required drug companies to include special inserts in many prescriptions to alert consumers on how the drug should be used and its possible adverse side effects.
A handful of rules are also targeted for revision at the USDA. These range from the label requirements for mechanically deboned meat to cooking requirements for meat that has been produced from tuberculosis-infected hogs.
At the FTC, many of the agency's most controversial proposals, such as the ban on television advertising aimed at children, were dropped long before Reagan's own appointee, James C. Miller III, could assume the agency's chairmanship. Now, Miller wants to go even further and reexamine years of commission policy to relax many of the agency's advertising rules, which he says only add to the cost of a product.
In addition to repealing rules, the administration is getting rid of many consumer-education material. NHTSA, for example, has refused to issue a new edition of The Car Book, which listed safety and fuel-efficiency information about dozens of car models.
On top of this, consumer groups charge that agencies are relaxing their enforcement of the rules that remain on the books. USDA, for example, is considering relaxing its meat-inspection requirements and has eliminated some of the tests their inspectors have to run to make sure the meat is free of disease.
Meanwhile, NHTSA has opened only four formal investigations into car defects since Reagan took office. In the Carter administration, an average of 15 investigations were opened annually.
Taken together, these actions have demoralized many consumer advocates. "This administration has certainly put the social reformers on the defensive, fighting to keep the crumbs doled out in the past," notes Jacobson.
Even so, the consumer advocates aren't about to give up. "The pendulmum swings one way, then the other. Obviously, it's swinging against us at this point, but it's going to stop--and hopefully sooner, rather than later," says CFA's Brobeck.