When I was a little girl, I walked through the smoking section of the airplane, squinting my eyes to find the bathroom at the back of the plane. A thick curtain “separated” the smoking section and people puffed, contaminating the air for everyone within reach. While it may seem absurd today, without meaningful regulations passed by the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, smoking on airplanes may still be a reality. Regulations help protect our health, our environment, and can even make our businesses more innovative.
In a time where our democracy is being challenged, political rhetoric is at an all time high, I want to take on the persistent and unwarranted attacks on “regulation”. President Trump signed an Executive Order that states for every new regulation, two existing regulations must be repealed. Not only does this order not make sense from a legislative perspective, it plays into the dangerous oversimplification that all regulations are bad.
I’ve been working to pass meaningful, smart regulations since I graduated from college so I’m very familiar with the sound bites and political spin around regulatory matters. Laws, some of which are regulations, have been part of our legislative process since the beginning of our democracy for good reason: in most cases they make our lives better.
What Is a Regulation?
A regulation is simply a rule created by our government for the public, states or businesses to follow. These rules are typically crafted through legislation that Congress passes or are established by our federal agencies (Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, etc.).
Regulation Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Big Government
Not all regulations require an extensive government bureaucracy. Some regulations are simply a few lines in law that can have tremendous impacts. Take for example this ban on plastic microbeads which is a few lines of legislation, but will significantly clean up plastic pollution in our river ways, lakes, and oceans.
Regulations Exist That We Take For Granted
It’s so easy to take for granted the important role regulations play in the health of our country’s people and land. All you have to do is look at photos from the 1970s of burning rivers, toxic barrels being dumped behind manufacturing sites, smog in Pittsburg and Los Angeles, and lakes, rivers and streams where you couldn’t eat the fish due to the high levels of mercury. These days were not that long ago, and regulations saved our health and environment.
Another example of a regulation we take for granted was when Congress banned lead from gasoline in the 1980s. This was a huge, nasty battle and the automobile industry said that banning lead from gasoline would effective shut down the U.S. auto industry. Public health advocates saw the lifelong impacts of lead and lead gasoline as a simple “lowing having fruit” opportunity for prevention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after Congress passed the lead in gasoline ban, the amount of lead in the blood of Americans plummeted. As a result, the auto industry innovated and created a catalytic converter and there are quantifiable public health benefits.
A few other examples of regulations that we take for granted:
- Speed limits
- Car seats for children
- Toxic chemical bans to prevent dumping of toxic waste
- Pollution limits that allow us to eat the fish we catch
- Limits on arsenic in drinking water
- Bans on pesticides that directly harm children’s brains
- This list could go on for pages…
Regulations Can Help Businesses Innovate
A common argument is that regulations stifle our economy, prevent jobs and hinder small businesses from growing. It’s reckless to make such sweeping claims about a concept that is actually quite complicated. There are some cases where regulations can be expensive to businesses, but there are other times where regulations help outdated, stagnant industries innovate.
Take for example in 2008 when the U.S. banned several different types of hormone-disrupting phthalates in children’s products (a campaign I was happy to play a small role in). Rather than hurting businesses, there was a spike in patents for phthalate alternative chemicals and compounds. The restriction of one toxic substance forced the industry to create safer, better, less toxic chemical alternatives.
Sometimes old industries need regulations to push them to innovate.
We Have an Unregulated Industry, It’s Not Pretty
Some people think that zero regulations means a booming economy, but all you have to do is look to today’s beauty industry to see that’s not the case. There are virtually no laws on the current personal care industry and companies can use any ingredients (even if they are linked to cancer) in the products we use on our bodies every day. The result is not a booming industry, but rather a slow growing industry that is also a threat to public health.
To make matters worse, businesses that are trying to make safer products, don’t always have access to information about the chemicals they are using to formulate their products. To connect the dots, because of a lack of regulation, businesses can’t innovate because they don’t have all the information necessary to make safer products.
Regulations Are Complicated, Industry Specific
Just because some regulations work for the beauty industry, doesn’t mean they will perfectly apply across the board. Each regulation needs to be specific to that particular industry, so blanket statements are an oversimplification of an otherwise complicated process.
The Majority of Americans Support Environmental Regulations
Regardless of political persuasion, the majority of Americans like the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration. These agencies keep big business in check and look out for our health.
At the end of the day not all regulations are good, and not all of them are bad. Should we decide to have an educated and sophisticated conversation about what makes the most sense, then we can move forward to create a dynamic democracy that both protects its people and fosters thriving businesses.