Does California's "Right to Know" Law Provide Too Much Information?

February 7, 2014

There is no evidence that California's public health has been improved by its "right to know" law, says Michael Marlow, an economics professor at California Polytechnic State University.

  • Proposition 65 in California was approved in 1986 to deal with chemical exposure.
  • California publishes a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm, and businesses must report to the state when such chemicals are released into the environment.
  • Businesses are also required to place warning labels on any product that they produce that carries a "cancer risk" (which means a 1 in 100,000 chance that any person exposed to the product could contract cancer over a 70 year period).
  • Restaurants have to provide warnings to customers about bread, olives and chicken because such foods contain tiny amounts of substances -- naturally found in the foods -- that cause cancer in rodents.

But has this law been effective? Very few studies have looked into the issue and the law's effects are uncertain. With so many warnings, complex labeling and general misunderstanding on these issues, some consumers ignore the warnings altogether, while others avoid products that actually carry very small risks.

In California, there is little, if any, evidence that the law has significantly reduced the frequency of cancer in the state. Marlow compared the state's cancer rates to those in other states without such laws and could not find statistical support for the claim that Proposition 65 significantly influenced cancer incidence.

At the same time, the law imposes heavy compliance costs on businesses. They must pay for testing, know which products require labeling, and ensure that their labels meet the law's requirements. Labels, of course, can weaken demand, and reformulation can also be costly. Ignoring the law is not an attractive option, as legal and reputational costs can weaken demand for products even further.

Two reform efforts have emerged in the state dealing with the law. One would change the burden of proof that plaintiffs must meet, which would reduce frivolous suits that often result in settlements thanks to the high cost of litigation. Another measure would remove the labeling requirement for low probability risks.

Source: Michael L. Marlow, "Too Much (Questionable) Information?" Regulation Magazine, Winter 2013-2014.

 

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