The Tribune takes Consumers Union to task for promoting Proposition 79, an California special election initiative, backed by unions for reasons entirely unrelated to public health.
In refusing to take advertising for fear it would taint product reviews, Consumer Reports magazine has for decades been an admirable bastion of journalistic integrity. That's why we were surprised – and disappointed – to see the magazine's parent organization, Consumers Union, lending its good name to a politically driven initiative on the Nov. 8 special election ballot.
Proposition 79 is a complex measure that would create a new government bureaucracy that supposedly would help 8 million to 10 million Californians secure discounts on prescription drugs by negotiating bulk purchases from pharmaceutical companies. To force firms to comply, they could face punitive lawsuits charging their profits are unreasonably high, a definition so elastic that it can only be seen as an open invitation for trial-lawyer avarice.
It seems to us that this proposition is qualitatively different from other crusades the Consumers Union has supported, such as demanding more financial privacy or calling for fuller disclosure of credit card fees. This initiative isn't part of a grand push to overhaul health care and make it more consumer-friendly. Instead, it is a poorly drafted measure whose own proponents tout more in terms of cheap populism – a promise to save millions of voters billions of dollars – than reform.
The problem, as Alan Murray pointed out in another article we highlight this week, is that pharmaceuticals are seen less as commodities than as public goods, which consumers instinctively think ought to be free. This (incorrect and dangerous) perception leaves plenty of room for demagoguery, which the proponents of Proposition 79 are exploiting to good effect.