In The ethics of sunscreen Seth Godin explains how, in the US, sunscreen is marketed using measures such as SPF (which is largely irrelevant when it comes to protecting consumers from skin cancer and aging) and claims such as ‘waterproof’ (which is often outright false.) He then goes on to ask the question (emphasis mine):
How can consumers look at this example and not believe that the regulation of marketing claims is the only way to insulate consumers from short-term selfish marketers in search of market share, marketers who will shade the truth, even if it kills some customers?
Why Government Is The Problem
As a libertarian I see the problem quite differently… Government claims its moral responsibility and its very justification for existence as protecting its citizens. This has led to millions upon millions of regulations from the critical to the absurd.
Government Erodes The Private Market’s Value
Given such a broad blanket of “protection” it is only natural that consumers assume that an industry which provides an important protective product would not be allowed to make false claims and market based on irrelevant factors.
With a government monopoly as the ultimate arbiter of consumer protection there is little incentive for independent consumer protection organizations to exist and those that do are perceived as having little value by the population at large. Consumer Reports may seem like a large and successful organization, but it is dwarfed by the various government agencies charged with protecting consumers. You may think that people do value Consumer Reports, and I would agree with you. But they don’t value it very much. The proof is in the price…. you can get a full year subscription for only $26.00 and I doubt that you would pay significantly more than that.
On the other hand if you knew, absolutely, that there was no government agency (supposedly) looking out for your interests then I bet you would be willing to pay for information on the safety and effectiveness of important products.
Government Lowers The Quality Of Consumer Protection
Not only that, but consumer protection would then be an industry not just a company here and there. The companies in that industry would be forced to compete in providing better and better information to guide consumer’s buying decisions.
Government Encourages Corruption
In Seth Godin’s article he points out how the sunscreen industry has been fighting the FDA for decades to prevent more stringent regulation. As a citizen that finds the FDAs repeated buckling to industry influence distasteful you cannot just decide to fire them.
If you had hired a private company to advise you on health products such as sunscreen and you found that they were concealing important information due to the influence of product manufacturers you would fire them immediately. In fact, you’d probably follow that up by pursuing damages from them.
No consumer protection business would survive long if it kowtowed to product manufacturers.
How Could Government Do Better?
As mush as I would love for it to happen, I don’t see government receding from the consumer protection industry and a private market springing up in its place any time soon.
Even so, I see a better role for government organizations such as the FDA. What is needed is not another regulation, but investigation of violations of basic moral principles. If what Mr. Godin says is true then the sunscreen industry is committing fraud and we would be well served by an organization that investigates and then prosecutes fraudulent businesses.
We don’t need another complicated set of regulations. We need enforcement of basic moral principles that a child can understand… “Don’t deceive your customers.”