Let Them Eat Marbles!

Having handed the interior portfolio to Gale Norton (who famously added "the right to pollute" to our many freedoms), President Bush has now appointed another fox to guard a henhouse. This time, it's Mary Sheila Gall, whom he's nominated to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission despite her tendency to blame consumers rather than manufacturers when defective products injure or kill.

In her 10 years on the commission, Gall voted against regulating baby walkers, infant bath seats, flammable pajamas and children's bunk beds. She even adopted a "Let them eat marbles" stance on the need for toy labeling, voting against choke hazard warnings on marbles, small balls and balloons. Consumers, she argued, "know that marbles are not intended for very young children."

In other words, if a kid chokes on a small toy, it's because the parent is defective not the product. And while I'm all for slapping warnings on defective parents, Gall's attitude dances on the graves of the 20,000 people, many of them children, who are killed every year by defective products. To say nothing of the close to 30 million people a year who are injured by faulty products. America, meet the new guardian of your children's safety.

Now if you think having a corporate apologist as America's top consumer watchdog is a small matter, take a look at a study released this month by Philip Morris touting the "positive effects" of its carcinogenic trade.

Conducted in the Czech Republic, the study weighed the obvious downside of smoking (it will kill you) against the heretofore overlooked benefits (if you're dead, you can't collect your federal pension). The study quaintly dubbed this budgetary windfall "health care cost savings due to early mortality."

"Is there any other company," asks Kenneth Warner of the University of Michigan's school of public health, "that would boast about making money for the public treasury by killing its customers?" Booze peddlers, at least, have the good sense to keep quiet about cirrhosis of the liver, and, last I checked, heart disease, diabetes and the AIDS virus had not yet hired publicists and K Street lobbying firms.

There may not be other companies as unabashed as Philip Morris, but there are plenty willing to quietly sacrifice a few buyers or their children on the altar of an enhanced bottom line. The cold-blooded mindset of the Philip Morris report disproves the Gall theory that companies don't need to be clubbed over the head to make their products safer. They'll do it voluntarily, so the theory goes, out of the sheer goodness of their hearts.

What many companies, Philip Morris chief among them, prefer to do, in fact, is keep selling their deadly or defective products while spending millions to sell the public on the goodness of their hearts. A perfect example is Philip Morris's ubiquitous ad campaign lauding the company's charitable contributions to food banks and battered women's shelters. If they could include a few highly addictive cigarettes in their care packages, I'm sure they would.

Of course, no amount of charitable giving can mitigate the fact that the donations are made possible by spreading death and disease across the globe. Smoking kills 4 million people a year worldwide -- a number that is expected to reach 10 million in the next 30 years.

And just how charitable is it, really, when it turns out that Philip Morris actually donates less to worthy causes than it spends patting itself on the back for those donations? Last year, the company spent $142 million on corporate image advertising while doling out a total of $125 million to charity.

The corporate smarm is particularly thick on Philip Morris's Web site, which reads like the Good Do-Bee Pledge on Romper Room. "We believe in operating with integrity, trust and respect," pledges the company in a section headlined "Our Core Values." "We are honest with one another and with our shareholders, fully disclosing all appropriate information, and not just that which supports our point of view."

Which, I guess, is why the company's executives spent decades lying about the addictive and deadly nature of their products, and why as recently as this year they authorized a study the company's own chief executive had to admit exhibited "a complete and unacceptable disregard of basic human values."

Lurking behind the multimillion dollar ad campaign is the company's hope that Congress will limit the authority of the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco. Pushing its agenda are the more than 100 registered lobbyists doing the company's bidding in Washington and one former employee now in a very high place indeed: the Boy Genius himself, Karl Rove.

From 1991 to 1996, Rove was on the Philip Morris payroll, providing the company with inside scoop on the politics of puffing. I can't help but wonder if that's why Big Tobacco is so optimistic about the talks now taking place with the Bush administration about settling the government's multibillion dollar lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

When it comes to product safety, the balance of power is so tilted in the direction of Big Business -- with its droves of lobbyists, buddies in all the right places and millions to spend distorting the truth -- the last thing we need is a Consumer Product Safety Commission leaning that way too.

So let's return Mary Sheila Gall to the ranks of ordinary consumers where she might get the practical education she so desperately needs.

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