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According to a study in The Journal of Law and Economics by W. Kip Viscusi, professor of economics at Northwestern University, almost everything went wrong. The regulation failed to improve the safety of aspirin; in fact, after safety caps were introduced, the number of child poisonings actually increased.
For starters, the caps didn't keep kids from overdosing on aspirin. Viscusi found that from the advent of safety caps in 1972 to 1978, the fraction of all aspirin sold in safety-cap bottles remained constant, but the relative share of poisonings from these bottles rose from 40 to 73 percent.
Why didn't the caps work? Viscusi offers two possible explanations. First, consumers might think the caps are child-proof rather than child-resistant and thus are less careful about keeping safety-capped products away from kids. Second, as anyone who's ever struggled with his Bayers would easily believe, the caps are so darn hard to get off that once the consumers succeed they may simply leave the caps off.
What about the overall rate of safety-cap poisonings? In his analysis of 19 products (including aspirin) that use safety caps, Viscusi found no significant decrease in poisonings. In fact, after safety caps came into use, poisonings from non-safety capped analgesics increased. An additional 3,500 children under the age of five suffered analgesic poisonings between 1971 and 1980. Viscusi attributes this to a spillover effect: safety caps on some medicines made consumers more careless with the other medicines stored with them.
Summarizing his findings in the journal Regulation, Viscusi concludes that "government regulations....may have unintended effects to the extent they lull consumers into a false sense of security and thus lead them to reduce their own precautions. This lulling effect may diminish or offset any beneficial effects of the regulation and ultimately may lead to net adverse consequences for consumer health and safety."
We hope this gives the regulation-happy crowd a big headache.
-Robert W. Poole, Jr., Lucy Braun, Bill Kauffman, and Virginia I. Postrel