Public Need or Profit Machine?
Last month, a California judge permanently banned efforts by the state to require warning labels on Roundup weed killer, finding no scientific evidence that glyphosate—the active ingredient in the product—is in any way harmful to humans.
In a subsequent case involving a proposed $10 billion settlement of almost 100,000 claims that Roundup does cause cancer, a different California judge said that the decision to not require warning labels on the product—and the scientific evidence on which it was based—was not applicable in the discussion of future claims settlements regarding the product.
The quandary created here is clear: warning labels exist to warn consumers of potential harm and prevent exposure to toxic chemicals. If warning label requirements are not based on science, and the judicial awards resulting from settlements are not beholden to sound science, why do they exist except to place undue burdens on businesses and consumers?
Let’s take a step back and look and where this quandary began. When voters in California—my beloved home state—approved Proposition 65 in 1986, no doubt they thought it was a good idea: reduce exposure to high concentrations of toxins by requiring that manufacturers place warning labels on products containing the chemicals, elements, and compounds that the state deemed potentially dangerous.
And, while it accomplished its mission in the early years, the measure has since snowballed into a bureaucratic and litigious nightmare. Warning labels are now required on tens of thousands of products that contain the more than 900 substances covered by the measure.
Filling up your car at the local service station? There’s a warning label on the pump. Picking up burgers and fries? Can’t miss the warning label on the menu. Heading to an amusement park? There’s one in the parking lot and at the entrance of every ride.
Warning labels are everywhere, with the general assumption that they exist to serve a common good based on scientific evidence. But who truly benefits from them?
As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, Prop 65 has instead given way to a complex web of regulations and overzealous lawyers seeking to profit off of any perceived violation of the measure.
Companies large and small have paid more than $370 million in settlements since 2000 thanks to an entire industry of mass tort firms that specialize in creating “consumer groups” to sue companies for allegedly violating the law. Attorney’s fees account for more than 75 percent of those settlements, with most of that going to a small number of “habitual litigants.”
Many companies would rather place warning labels on products without demonstrated scientific need than risk the economic damage of potential litigation for not doing so, reducing the value of warning labels and leaving consumers to wonder, is this product actually harmful?
And, those labels still do not prevent companies from exorbitant additional costs. New labeling requirements are expected to cost companies between $400-$800 million over the next decade alone.
Who foots the bill? Every California consumer.
We must ask: do warning labels serve their well-intended purpose; or, do they instead serve as the foundation for a profit seeking regulatory framework and litigation machine that costs consumers millions of dollars and undermines the public’s trust in fact-based science?