Buyer Be Wary

Times Staff Writer

When Consumers Union was organized 60 years ago and began publishing Consumer Reports to guide shoppers through the rough-and-tumble marketplace, there were few protective laws, regulatory agencies or consumer advocacy groups. With the country mired in a depression and bereft of safety nets, most families were barely scraping by.

Today, America's bountiful supply of goods and services is the envy of the world. The consumer movement launched by Ralph Nader in the late 1960s has resulted in a sophisticated core of activist groups in Washington, consumer protection agencies galore, and a national grass-roots network concerned with everything from the purity of baby food to the safety of cars and trucks.

Yet there is still the sense of playing catch-up as the nation careens toward a high-tech 21st century. "Society and the marketplace are evolving so rapidly that the consumer movement is constantly reinventing itself to keep on top of issues and problems," said Ken McEldowney, director of San Francisco's Consumer Action and president of the Consumer Federation of America, which links 240 organizations.

"As we go into the 21st century, technology has evolved so quickly that laws may never catch up, and the ability of computers to capture personal information is growing geometrically," he said. "Consumers should plan on taking extra time to make intelligent choices in 1997 because everything is going to be more complicated."

What specific hurdles may appear in 1997? Asked to look at the year ahead, leading consumer activists sketched out their top priorities and biggest worries.

* At Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., whose Consumer Reports has a circulation of 4.5 million, president Rhoda H. Karpatkin emphasized the paradox of a society whose citizens enjoy the highest level ever of consumer goods and product safety, and yet are unhappy in many areas.

"There's a whole list of reasons, and I would head my list with health care access," Karpatkin said. "Astoundingly, the number of uninsured people (41 million) seems to be increasing. Add to that the millions who are underinsured and there's plenty of reason to be unhappy. In addition, the frantic rush in health care to make profits has left everyone feeling buffeted."

Her list of pressing problems also includes the erosion of citizenship as special interests seemingly dictate legislation and concern about what's happening to our children as commercialism invades schools, homes and lives in general. "That's a long-term concern," Karpatkin said. "It indicates a society out of kilter."

* For Michael Jacobson, executive director of Washington's Center for Science in the Public Interest, the advocacy group that has sent up alarms over the fat content of movie popcorn and Mexican food, the overriding issue for 1997 will be the replacement for David Kessler as head of the Food and Drug Administration.

"He's been the best commissioner in 25 years--maybe the best ever," Jacobson said. With an FDA fiefdom overseeing almost a quarter of the American economy, Jacobson said, the commissioner can be a "vigorous watchdog to protect the consumer or a lap dog of industry."

Kessler resigned in November after an aggressive six years that included implementing the food labeling laws and battling Congress and the cigarette industry over the regulation of tobacco firms. "On the downside he approved Olestra [the first zero-calorie fat substitute now being test-marketed amid controversy about the digestive problems it may cause]," Jacobson said.

He thinks food poisoning, especially salmonella in raw eggs, will register as an issue and predicts the ironic continuation of two parallel trends: "People will continue to overeat and get fatter and fatter, and we'll see the continued proliferation of obesity cures."

* Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen in Washington, founded in 1970 by Nader, said campaign finance reform is the major issue on her group's plate. "It's a corrupting influence, and the 1996 election saw even more egregious behavior," said Claybrook, who expects a "bunch of bills" to be introduced in 1997. Public Citizen will work in coalition on the issue.

"I think we have to do more citizen outreach and make sure people know what is pending," she said. With five initiatives passed this year on the state level, she thinks the time may be right for reform, though conceding it's a difficult issue. "You are asking the folks who are affected essentially to regulate themselves. It will only happen if people pressure is big and continuous."

Also high on their agenda, she said, will be fending off congressional attacks on health and safety regulations. "We just had our first real adversarial Congress in 30 years," she said.

* In Sacramento, Marjorie Berte oversees 38 programs as director of the Department of Consumer Affairs. "The biggest priority here is the Sunset Review process," she said. That's an ongoing look at the function of every regulatory board. The first review round included deregulating an interior design certification program and deregulation of water beds and down products, she said.

And some changes will be made in the implementation of Smog Check II, the revamped auto inspection program whose start-up last summer swamped the department with complaints. The program still targets as "gross polluters" the dirtiest cars and mandates repair, but pilotproject alternatives to the state-run testing centers will give auto owners more flexibility in where to go.

* In McEldowney's view, chasing the technology will be the challenge for 1997. The speed of change has left even the swiftest regulators behind, said McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, which focuses on technology and diversity. "For instance, whose sales tax, if any, applies to purchases on the Internet?"

Telecommunications leads the troublesome list, he said. "In the early '80s when AT & T was broken up, folks thought that was confusing, but that was two-dimensional compared to what's going on now with long distance providing local service and vice versa, and satellite dishes and cellular phones and Internet and PCS [personal communications systems]: like layers and layer and layers. 'Incomprehensible' is the only word that i can think of."

Consumer Action's dual challenge, he said, will be to compile multilingual educational information and to continue to press for affordable rates for people who only want basic telecom service.

* Pastor Herrera Jr., director of the Los Angeles County Consumer Affairs Department, sees two new technology-related issues emerging as special problems. The first is prepaid telephone cards, increasingly popular because of their convenience, and sold at service stations, convenience stores and other outlets. But since sales are not regulated, Herrera advises to buy cards only from the telephone companies or reputable businesses.

The second problem is the growing opportunity for identity fraud. Someone gets hold of your driver's license or Social Security number (especially if you have good credit) and "becomes you," he said, and goes on a spending spree. "It's easier than robbing a bank."

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