At the dawn of the twentieth century, the phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) was the primary means of consumer protection. Everyone has heard of the snake oil salesmen of that time, and that the original recipe for Coca-Cola contained cocaine. There were few, if any, government regulations on consumer products. In 1905, Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, exposed the horrific conditions in meat packing facilities. The resulting outrage by the public led Congress to pass the Wiley Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and then twenty years later, to create the Food & Drug Administration to inspect and regulate food safety.
On March 15, 1962, President John F. Kennedy raised questions again about public safety as a topic important to the country’s economy and national interest. In a joint address to Congress, Kennedy talked about a basic Consumer Bill of Rights in which he outlined four principles:
• The right to safety
• The right to be informed
• The right to choose
• The right to be heard
Part of his speech read:
Two-thirds of all spending in the economy is by consumers. But they are the only important group in the economy who are not effectively organized, whose views are often not heard.
Ever since legislation was enacted in 1872 to protect the consumer from frauds involving use of the U.S. mail, the Congress and Executive Branch have been increasingly aware of their responsibility to make certain that our Nation’s economy fairly and adequately serves consumers’ interests.
If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.
Some of the legislation that arose from Kennedy’s notes to Congress was focused on the simple idea that government can further protect consumers by making more information available. Hence, the result was the beginning of accurate labeling requirements that we know as commonplace today. Subsequent bipartisan debate in Congress talked about needing drug companies to prove the efficacy of drug claims. Also mentioned as industries in which fraudulent claims were hurting consumers were the cosmetics industry, food (especially the inadequacy of meat factory inspections and the claims of dietary foods), and used cars. It’s hard to believe in our current environment that there were no laws prohibiting companies from including known carcinogenic ingredients in their consumer products prior to the 1960s. Congress also expressed concern about the lack of educational opportunities for consumers in the burgeoning TV industry, and looked to increase protections on competition and competitive pricing.
The roots of all the consumer protections we take for granted today can be traced to the boomer era of the 1960s and ’70s. That era’s legislation paved the way for further consumer protections that boomers remember, including seatbelts in cars. Then, as now, while the vast majority of Americans could agree on the principle of car safety, there was disagreement on how that could be achieved. Nonetheless, the data since the 1960s is clear that tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved since the laws requiring seatbelts were enacted. Likewise for food safety, and more.
Kennedy’s basic four principles can be seen in effect in today’s consumer protections from deceptive advertising, unfair business practices, fraud and unsafe products.
What do you recall of the days when there was little in the way of informative food labeling, wild advertising claims went unchecked, and cars did not have seatbelts, boomers?