Q: Is the consumer movement in trouble?
A: Well, I think as far as the Reagan administration goes, the consumer movement is in trouble.
Q: Are you saying that this administration is opposed to consumer rights?
A: Well, it looks like that sometimes -- yes. What annoys me about this administration is they say, "Stay away, because we don't want to hear you." Listen, we should be heard. . . . I'm really disappointed by the way Reagan has dismantled and downgraded the consumer office at the White House.
Q: How has Reagan downgraded the White House consumer office?
A: Well, he removed it from the executive office building. You need to be part of the inside.
Q: As President Carter's special assistant for consumer affairs, you convinced the president to sign an executive order restricting the export of hazardous products that had been banned in the United States. President Reagan revoked that, and now a congressional bill that Sen. Orrin Hatch R-Utah is planning to introduce would allow drug manufacturers to export drugs that have not been approved for use in the United States. How do you feel about that legislation?
A: When I was in Bangkok recently for the conference of the International Organization of Consumers, representatives of consumer organizations from 50 countries and 147 different consumer organizations around the world passed a resolution that deplores Bill S2878 Hatch's bill . . . . This resolution said "we look to the United States, because you people have led the way in the consumer movement. Why are you denying us the very things that have proved useful in your own country?"
Q: The Food and Drug Administration says that there are some drugs, which haven't been found safe here, that could help cure diseases such as cholera in Third World nations. Shouldn't those countries be allowed to regulate drugs to suit their own needs?
A: I definitely believe that formulas could be worked out, ways of being sure that people are not denied drugs that are needed. But I'm skeptical when I see the profusion of drugs that are put on the markets in the developing countries.. . . Companies look at these places as markets for drugs, not as people who are needing help. I just think we have a tremendous responsibility to be sure these drugs are safe.
Q: How do you respond to the criticism that the United States should not be a "global nanny?"
A: Well, I disagree with it. I don't think there's anything wrong with being concerned about people. We are not being a global nanny, because the U.N. international consumer guidelines would spell out specifically that it's up to each country to make up their own minds. They don't have to accept any of this if they don't want it.
Q: It has been said that your main adversary at the U.N. is the present U.S. administration. Last fall, for example, the United States was the only one of 157 nations that wouldn't approve the international consumer guidelines. Are there are other specific issues where the U.S. mission to the U.N. has opposed you?
A: They were the only one who voted against publication of the consolidated list of banned products. They did that two or three times. And it finally passed -- on Dec. 8, I think -- over the objection of the United States, the only country in opposition , 149 to 1.
Q: Why did the United States oppose this?
A: Well, first they opposed it because of the expense. They thought it was not the right responsibility of the U.N. They thought they did not have the technical qualifications to prepare the list. That is really not a valid argument, because all it is is a list of the things that other countries have banned.
Q: Do you think that big American corporations believe the products they are exporting are safe, or do they intentionally want to export products that haven't been proved safe here, knowing they will endanger consumers abroad?
A: I don't think it's that deliberate. I would hate to say that these guys that I talk with would be that way, really. I think that up in the ivory tower of their suites when they fly in with the jets, they don't know the real world. I wish I could take them by the hand. "Go with me to these marketplaces and see this yourself," I'd say. Because I find them wonderful human beings once you get through to them. But I think there's an absolute unreality as to what the real world is like for these people.
When you consider, for example, the average annual income in some of these countries is $200, and then you find the pressure to buy drugs and to buy vitamins. One of the mothers there said to me, "You know, this drug that they tell me will take care of my child, look how expensive it is. Really, what my kid needs is food."
Q: How did you get involved at first in the consumer movement?
A: I guess I got involved through my husband. I had been been raised in a very tight Republican family. He was a socialist -- a Norman Thomas socialist. He began taking me to meetings and factories and slums, and hearing all the great speakers of those periods, my eyes were opened a little bit. Then I went to Boston because he was going to Harvard, and I started to volunteer in the church again. And he said "do something different, Esther."
So, I volunteered at the YWCA, and I got assigned to the industrial department of the Y . . . and that's when I worked for the Consumers League for Fair Labor Standards. And that's where I met Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and learned that you could use your purchasing power to help direct social policy.
Q: Carter gave you the task of securing legislation that would create an independent consumer agency, with power to intervene on behalf of the consumer before federal agencies and the courts. Why do you think you were unable to accomplish that task? Is it true, as Ralph Nader says, that in the end, it was Carter's fault?
A: No, I disagree with him on that. It was the great power of the big corporations. They organized the Business Roundtable, one of the strongest anticonsumer lobbies that has ever been assembled. And they were powerful. And don't think I didn't meet them in the corridor -- "Esther, . . . we are going to lick you." . . .
I think that Carter's dealing on the Hill was not all that I would have liked. And I'm the first to criticize that. . . . I wish to hell I would have been able to handle it myself, the way I would have liked to have handled it. Because I know how to get a bill through Congress.
Q: You're 78 years old, and you're still active in the consumer movement. What motivates you to stay involved after all this time?
A: Well, I love it when people come to me and ask me to do things, like when I heard from someone in Venezuela who said that he had heard that Reagan had canceled certain programs. He asked, "Do you think we can get Mrs. Peterson to help us?" And that means a lot to me because, at my stage of the game, I don't want to go out and find make-work for Esther. I love being asked to be useful. I think I learned from Mrs. Roosevelt that you've got to be concerned and useful -- otherwise, you just wither. And I don't want to wither.
And then I see all these things to be done. I think our work has made a difference. I think we're going to get the international consumer guidelines. It's not everything we want, but it's never been that way in my life, anyway. Everything is compromised. Mrs. Roosevelt used to say "now remember, you have to compromise -- but compromise upwards."