While on the campaign trail, President-elect Donald Trump made it clear what he plans to do to regulations.
“I would say 70% of regulations can go,” he was quoted as saying at a town hall meeting. According to his website, his vision for regulations is to ask all department heads to submit a list of “every wasteful and unnecessary regulation which kills jobs” — and then to eliminate them.
The site indicates an exception for regulations regarding “public safety.” But the tricky thing is, the public, businesses, and the government don’t always agree which regulations are necessary for public safety.
History shows us that many necessary regulations that we take for granted today were initially opposed by corporations that said they’d hurt jobs and destroy the industry. Fortunately, in these cases, regulation won the day.
Here are three prominent times that public safety regulations won out and we all benefitted — and not at the expense of business either.
1. Food and drug labelling laws
At the turn of the 20th century, the food and drug industries were virtually uncontrolled.
Chemical preservatives weren’t tested for safety; toxic colors were frequently used; milk cows weren’t tested for tuberculosis; and opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine were often ingredients in popular medicines — and there were no labels to warn consumers of their presence.
According to the FDA, Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief of the Division of Chemistry, was one of the first to crusade for safety laws in regards to food and medicine.
He started volunteer “hygiene table studies” where young men would eat food containing chemical preservatives (these trials became popularly known as “poison squads“) to demonstrate that the ingredients were harmful. He wanted to show the public that these preservatives should only be used when necessary and that none should be used without informing the consumer on the label.
But it wasn’t an easy task.
Whiskey distillers and patent medicine firms (the largest advertisers in the country) vehemently opposed a federal food and drug law.
They said it would put them out of business, and they argued that the government had no business policing what people ate, drank, or used as medicine.
In large part because of this and other opposition, the incremental progress toward food labeling took over a century. Many laws were passed and regulations approved that gave consumers information about what they were putting into their bodies, but each was met with resistance. Concessions had to be made when passing them so that revisions, amendments, and new versions were later needed to protect consumers.
Food labelling as we know it today wasn’t required until 1990. By then, public opinion had shifted, and it was recognized that these laws and regulations were helping public safety.
2. Mandatory seat belts
In 1970, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations proposed that all vehicles include an automatic restraint system.
The auto industry, led by Ford, GM, and Chrysler, balked, saying that things like seat belts and airbags would hurt the manufacturing industry by increasing costs.
In one leaked 1971 private meeting between Ford senior executives and President Richard Nixon that was caught on tape, Ford Motor Co. chairman Henry Ford II complained that “the price of a Pinto … [would go] up something like 50% in the next three years with the inflation part of it, but that’s not the big part of it. It’s the safety requirements, the emission requirements.”
The vehement opposition to the legislation led to over a decade of delays — until public pressure began to mount.
“When I was an administrator, I did a lot of crash testing of cars, and it showed how the occupant is thrown around in the interior of the car when the crash occurs. And people began to understand because they could see it — visually — how violent auto crashes are,” says Joan Claybrook, the former head of the National Highway Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter and former head of Public Citizen.
“So when the auto companies wouldn’t put provisions in the car or opposed them, the public began to understand that they were not helping the public by doing that. It was essentially allowing people to be killed,” she adds.
It wasn’t until 1984 that states began requiring seat belt use (starting with New York). By 1989, most states had seat belt laws in place.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seat belts have saved an estimated 275,000 lives over the last 40 years.
“What regulation does is that it assures that every new car that’s manufactured meets certain minimum standards,” says Claybrook, “If you don’t have regulation, the higher-income wealthier people in the country will demand that their more luxury cars have safety provisions and the rest of the public, in their less expensive cards, often don’t get them — or don’t get them for years.”
3. Banning smoking on airlines
It took almost 30 years for smoking to be banned on all commercial airlines and flights — despite health risks to both crew and passengers.
Tobacco companies actively fought any and all regulations against their products well into the 1990s, even though warning labels were first mandated back in 1965 — a year after the surgeon general’s report on the health risks had come out — and the dangers of smoking were becoming well-established.
Airlines also worried that their customers wouldn’t fly if they couldn’t smoke on long flights and that losing all their smoking customers could hurt business. The airlines thought it would be impossible to ban smoking completely, even if flight attendants and nonsmokers were advocating for it.
“Suitcases, uniforms, hair — all stunk from cigarette smoke,” Tracy Shear, a flight attendant with U.S. Airways, shared with The New York Times. “And it’s astounding that we didn’t have more cabin fires.”
In 1990, despite bitter resistance by the tobacco industry and after years of pressure from the Association of Flight Attendants, smoking was banned on all but a few domestic flights that were over six hours.
It took another 10 years for a federal law to be passed outlawing smoking on all flights by U.S. airlines — and interestingly, the move to make all flights smoke-free was celebrated by employees, customers, and even the airlines themselves. Customers didn’t stop flying because they couldn’t smoke — in fact, everyone was thankful for the clean air in the cabin.
Today, the battle over regulations is far from over.
Lobbyists and businesses still campaign every day for deregulation, saying that meddling from Uncle Sam will hurt them. Some of the loudest opposition comes from oil and energy companies fighting regulations to mitigate pollution and environmental damage — despite the frequent environmental disasters that occur and the looming threat of climate change.
Like tax cuts for the wealthy, we are told that deregulation is what’s best for business and our economy because that is how innovation happens. When profits are good, they say, the benefits will “trickle down” to the rest of us. But time and time again, we have seen the opposite. Regulation doesn’t kill businesses — it just makes them safer.
So as a new president takes office, it’s important to remember that regulation “equalizes the safety protections for everybody,” as Claybrook explains. These laws are necessary to protect people’s lives. Perhaps one day we will think that environmental regulations are just as common sense as we now find seat belts.
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