Student Question

What is meant by "consumer rights," and why are they considered important?

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Consumer rights in the marketplace has been an evolving issue for many years.  As far back as 1938 Congress passed, and President Franklyn Roosevelt signed, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which sought to provide greater transparency and honesty in the packaging of food and other consumer items.  Concerns about public safety necessitated greater levels of governmental oversight in the marketplace – concerns that have never, and likely never will, disappear.

As the problem of consumer safety expanded and spread globally, the United Nations established a series of guidelines, or “rights,” that should be enjoyed by consumers all over the world.  Recognizing the importance of this development, then-President John Kennedy addressed the U.S. Congress on the issue.  In a “Special Message” to the Congress, the president wrote:

“The federal Government – by nature the highest spokesman for all the people – has a special obligation to be alert to consumer’s needs and to advance the consumer’s interests. . . If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers.” [“Special Message to the Congress on Protecting the Consumer Interest,” March 15, 1962;]

The United Nations, in response to the movement towards greater protection for consumers, adopted the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection, a list of four – later expanded to eight – rights to be afforded to all consumes in all countries.  These rights include the following:

-- The right to safety: consumers should be protected against unsafe products;

-- The right to be informed: consumers should be provided the information they need to make informed purchasing decisions;

-- The right to choose: consumers should have options and not be limited to one choice;

-- The right to be heard: consumers should have access to a forum or governmental body to whom they can voice concerns about product safety;

-- The right to satisfaction of basic needs: consumers should have access to the basics required for survival, like food, water, clothing and shelter;

-- The right to redress:  consumers should have the right to petition government for redress for harm or damages incurred as a result of defective or dangerous products;

-- The right to consumer education: consumers should have access to information regarding the products in question; and

-- The right to a healthy environment: consumes, and everybody else, have a right to live and work in a safe environment.

These, then are the consumer rights universally recognized by the United Nations, as well as by the United States.  Note that this is a list of eight rights, not six.  The first four in the list were the original rights specified in the original U.N. guidelines.  The last four were added in 1985.  They are important because history has repeatedly demonstrated that consumes cannot and should not rely on the diligence and integrity of those manufacture and process the foods they eat and the products they buy.

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