Bamboozled June 26, 2017: Showdown over baby mattress bill in N.J. Senate

*The bill passed. See more about what happened in this story.

There will be a showdown in the New Jersey Senate Monday afternoon over a bill that’s designed to save babies’ lives.

Debate over the bill, which would ban the sale of supplemental baby mattresses in New Jersey, is something of a David versus Goliath story pitting child safety advocates — really, a mom who lost a child — against pro-business lobbyists.

On one side is Joyce Davis, who said her son suffocated after his head was trapped between a supplemental mattress and the soft side of a playpen. Garret Davis was four-and-a-half month old.

On the other side are companies that manufacture and sell the mattresses, including Dream on Me of Piscataway.

The company hired a lobbying firm that’s been pressuring senators to strike down the measure, most recently with an email whose language isn’t exactly accurate.

Consider this a fact-checking column. There are two sides to every story, but we couldn’t stand by as our senators are being mislead on this very important vote.

First, some background.

Davis started a nonprofit called Keeping Babies Safe (KBS) to promote safe sleep initiatives, including getting supplemental mattresses banned.

KBS argues the mattresses counter federal warning labels on playpens and other soft-sided play yards, which clearly tell parents to use only the mattresses that come packaged with the products.

Despite the warning, supplemental mattresses were readily available, often sold right next to the playpens. KBS convinced retailers including Toys ‘R Us, Buy Buy Baby, Kmart, Sears and Wayfair to stop selling the mattresses. WalMart and Amazon still carry the products.

KBS also petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for a ban. Last month, CPSC voted in favor of the petition and continues to explore the issue.

And here in New Jersey, KBS worked on legislation to ban the sale and manufacture of the mattresses.

An Assembly bill passed unanimously in December, and the Senate version, S2616, got through the Commerce Committee, also unanimously. There was a delay in Budget and Appropriations Committee, but after a little nudge from Bamboozled, Sen. Paul Sarlo, the committee’s chair, promised the bill would be heard.

The story about the committee delay attracted the interest of a different lobbying firm, which contacted Bamboozled and offered to help KBS for free.

When the bill was debated in the Budget Committee on June 16, the sponsors agreed to a concession to the bill’s opponents, softening the measure to allow the manufacture of the mattresses. The revised bill would only ban the sale in New Jersey.

That begs the question: If the mattresses are too dangerous to sell in New Jersey, what makes it okay to make the products here to sell in other states? Are other states’ babies less important or less at risk when using supplemental mattresses?

That was a win for the manufacturer’s lobbyists, Kaufman Zita Group, but the bill advanced anyway with 7 “yes” votes and 6 abstentions, including from Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex), who previously told Bamboozled he would vote “yes” on the measure.

Even with the concession to allow the manufacture of the mattresses in New Jersey, a vote for the bill would be a blow to Dream on Me, which says it employs about 150 people and recently announced a plan to add 800 jobs in the state by expanding a manufacturing facility.

It’s tried to turn the safety issue into an economic one, saying lawmakers should wait for the feds to decide before “considering whether to endanger New Jersey jobs.”

But this is really about baby safety.

CPSC support was evident in a December 2016 Twitter message:“Parents: Only use the mattress that comes with your crib/bassinet/play yard. No supplemental mattresses.”

It posted a similar tweet last week.

And then came the unsigned email to senators from the lobbyists, which said CPSC rejected a ban last month.

That’s not at all correct.

In the 3-2 vote last month, CPSC commissioners approved the petition. While it didn’t say yes to an outright ban, it directed staff to work on standards to “address the risk of injury” associated with the mattresses, CPSC documents show.

That could lead to more rigid safety standards or an actual ban.

The first page of the email sent to senators from the lobbying firm that represents Dream on Me.

 

The lobbyists’ email also included letters from two CPSC commissioners who said they didn’t support a ban.

Of course those commissioners didn’t support it. They were on the losing side of the 3-2 vote.

Interestingly, one of the commissioners who voted against — Joseph Mohorovic — said in 2015: “Seeing padded bumpers on the shelves contradicts the message the safety community needs caregivers to remember: Bare is Best.”

We asked Mohorovic how selling supplemental mattresses on store shelves — mattresses that go against the warning labels on playpens — is any less contradictory.

He declined to comment.

The lobbying email did not include statements from the three commissioners who voted in favor.

A Dream on Me spokesman touted the safety of the products, saying that’s why CPSC staff “recommended against a ban,” and it hopes the Senate will consider that before the vote.

But CPSC staff didn’t recommend against a ban, documents show. It recommended the commissioners defer a decision until more work is done on standards.

However you characterize the staff recommendations, the truth is the CPSC commissioners voted in favor of the petition.

We hope the Senate will consider that.

The lobbying letter closes by asking how senators can “justify banning a product that has done no harm and will cost New Jersey 150 jobs?”

That’s also misleading. Remember: the bill would ban the sale, not the manufacture, of the mattresses. They can still be sold in other states, even though most major retailers have stopped carrying the products.

Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the mom of an 8-month-old baby and sponsor of the bill, said she’s “completely committed to convincing any one of my colleagues of the critical importance of this bill.”

The state shouldn’t wait on the CPSC, Ruiz said.

“New Jersey has been at the forefront of policy change that other states have adopted, so we should lead with the same intent and vigor,” she said. “We can’t wait for the federal government to make a decision, especially in this case when we’re talking about the most vulnerable state of a human being — an infant.”

We hope the senators consider the facts and not the spin when they cast their votes.

And really, who wants to be called out for voting “no” on a bill that could save babies? Opponents of incumbents would have a field day with that in the next election.

Stay tuned. We’ll update this story when the vote happens during the 2 p.m. session.

And if you’d like to tell your legislators to support the bill, you can find contact information here.

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