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Consumers Beware of Mass-Market Experimentation

Most Americans at one time or another are subjected to mass-market experimentation, according to School of Law professor Marshall Shapo.

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January 6, 2009 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
CHICAGO --- Think you're safe because you've never volunteered your body for the advancement of science? Think again.

Most Americans at one time or another are subjected to mass-market experimentation, according to Northwestern University School of Law professor Marshall Shapo. He is the author of the new book "Experimenting with the Consumer: The Mass Testing of Risky Products on the American Public."

Innovation through experimentation can and does make our lives better, the book stresses. But even when companies strive to produce quality products, hidden risks may lie in wait for consumers. "Experimenting With the Consumer" cautions, through a series of chapters on topics such as Viagra, breast implants and estrogen therapy, that all too often Americans are unwittingly subjects of mass-market experimentation.

"While most people might think of experimentation as occurring in a laboratory supervised by researchers in white coats, the truth is that as consumers, we are experimental vehicles," Shapo said. "Researchers continue to discover risks involved with new products even after they hit the market."

Shapo's scholarship, which includes more than 25 books, focuses on how American law regulates risky behavior. "The lesson really is: don't be scared but be careful," Shapo said. "You have to view new products and processes with a certain degree of healthy skepticism, and that can include even drugs prescribed by your doctor."

The case of Viagra exhibits several features of mass-market experimentation that affect consumers. One reason behind the success of Viagra, for example, is the relatively new phenomenon of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. Viagra also is an example of how perceptions of risk are affected by cultural changes. With the evolution of sexual culture, the line has blurred between medical need and consumer demand.

It is widely agreed that agencies like the FDA need more resources and independence from the people and industries being regulated. But mixing science and politics is tricky, according to Shapo.

"You've got scientists arguing with each other on the data of risk, scientists arguing with doctors on what's best for patients and companies arguing with politicians about regulation," Shapo said. "Some people even argue that the FDA doesn't let them take enough chances with products they would like to use."

These are not easy issues to sort out, but Shapo hopes his book will lead readers to be cautious about the products they choose and press their elected officials for more oversight and regulation of consumer and workplace products.

(Andrea Albers, newsroom assistant, media relations, contributed to this article.)