The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent federal regulatory agency, was established with the passage of the Consumer Product Safety Act in 1972. The primary responsibility of the CPSC is to protect the public from unreasonable risks of injury associated with consumer products. The CPSC also promotes the evaluation of consumer products for potential hazards, establishes uniform safety standards for consumer products, eases conflicting state and local regulations concerned with consumer safety, and selectively conducts research on potentially hazardous products. The CPSC promotes the development of voluntary safety standards and under certain circumstances has the authority to issue and enforce standards and ban unsafe products. The commission also has the authority to recall consumer products not specifically regulated by other government agencies. In all its activities the CPSC strives to work closely with private consumer groups, industry, the media, and agencies of various state and local governments.
The CPSC does not have jurisdiction over all consumer products. Safety standards for trucks, automobiles, and motorcycles are set by the U.S. Department of Transportation; drugs and cosmetics are handied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and alcohol, tobacco, and firearms fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Nevertheless, approximately 15,000 types of consumer products are regulated by the CPSC.
The CPSC is headed by five commissioners, each appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. One of the commissioners is appointed chairman.
Early federal consumer safety legislation dealt primarily with food, drugs, and cosmetics. The federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 forbade the adulteration and fraudulent misbranding of food and drugs sold through interstate commerce. Other early consumer legislation included the Meat Inspection Act of 1907 (amended in 1967 by the Wholesome Meat Act). In 1933 legislation was introduced to strengthen the Food and Drug Act of 1906. This legislation mandated the standardized labeling of food products, required that manufacturers prove drugs are safe for the purpose for which they are sold, and established a premarket clearance procedure for new drug products. Many drug companies opposed this bill, as did much of the media, fearful of a potential loss of advertising revenue. After a five-year battle in Congress the bill was passed in 1938 as the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Amendments to the bill in 1962 established biennial factory inspections, disclosure through labeling of dangerous side effects, FDA approval of all new drugs, FDA power to remove dangerous drugs from the market, and the requirement that a manufacturer prove that the drug is not only safe but also effective for its stated purpose.
The scope of federal consumer safety legislation broadened throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Flammable Fabrics Act, passed in the early fifties, established safety standards for fabrics used in clothing. The Refrigerator Safety Act of 1956 required that refrigerator doors have inside release mechanisms. The 1962 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act established federal jurisdiction over motorvehicle safety, while the 1965 federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act required the now infamous "Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health" label. Other pre-1972 consumer product safety legislation included the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968, which dealt with radiation emission levels of electronic products, and the Poison Prevention Packaging Act of 1970, which established packaging standards to protect children from potentially hazardous substances.
In 1967 the National Commission on Product Safety was established. It was believed that federal consumer safety legislation was not as effective as it could be because of its narrow approach that targeted specific types of products for regulation. What was needed was legislative authority over broad categories of potentially hazardous products. The National Commission on Product Safety was charged with identifying these broad categories of potentially hazardous products and evaluating existing legal and voluntary methods for securing consumer product safety. The commission found that "the exposure of consumers to unreasonable product hazards is excessive by any standards of measurement." The commission also asserted that even though consumers must take some responsibility for their own safety, industry must also assume responsibility for the design and manufacture of safe consumer products. In this regard it was felt they had been lax.
On the basis of their inquiry, the commission recommended the creation of an independent federal regulatory agency and a presidential appointee to the commission to serve as a consumer advocate before the new agency. The commission also recommended that the new agency have the authority to issue safety regulations and standards. Subsequently, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was created in 1972.
Nineteen ninety-eight marked the 25th anniversary of the CPSC. Always controversial, the commission has been both lauded and criticized by consumer product activists. The CPSC was "near death" during the Reagan administration, which drastically cut its budget, resulting in deep staff cuts. In 1997 the General Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report deriding the CPSC for inadequate information-gathering techniques and a lack of proper monitoring procedures for its projects. There was also criticism of the CPSC's "Chairman's Awards," which were viewed by the GAO as creating the specter of official government endorsement of a product, something the CPSC is not authorized to do. The CPSC and its chairwoman, Ann Winkleman Brown, have been roundly criticized by Consumers' Research Magazine for these shortcomings. The publication has also published its list of the "Top 5 CPSC 'Low Lights' of 1997." In an earlier 1996 article Consumers' Research Magazine also claimed that many of the CPSC recalls are unnecessary or questionable and ultimately costly to the consumer.
Brown, who has been chairwoman since 1994, is credited, however, with reinvigorating the CPSC. She had made a name for herself as a child-safety activist and a leading critic of the CPSC until her appointment by President Bill Clinton. Brown told a reporter that when she accepted the appointment she thought the commission was a big waste of money. "No one was doing anything when I got here," she said during an interview, "This commission was all bun and no beef. Now we've added a lot of beef."
In 1987 the CPSC recalled 147 products for safety hazards but by 1997 that number had increased to 362. In 1998 the CPSC won its first criminal penalty against a manufacturer whose mislabeling of a corrosive solution claimed the life of a 15-year-old boy.
Despite these ongoing problems and successes, the CPSC, which still relies on voluntary compliance for the most part, is nevertheless an "agency come back to life," according to Mary Ellen Fise, general counsel of the Consumer Federation of America.
[ Michael Knes ]
Kimble, William. Federal Consumer Product Safety Act. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 1975.
Klein, Gil. "Consumer Product Safety Commission Comes Back to Life." Media General News Service, 1998. Available from www.nando.net/newsroom/htn/politics/042298/politics_25539_noframes.html .
Lemov, Michael R. Consumer Product Safety Commission. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.
Zipperer, Rich. "97 Not a Good Year at CPSC." Consumers' Research Magazine, December 1997, 34-35.
——. "Rethinking Recalls." Consumers' Research Magazine, October 1996, 35-36.