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Does Washington state need price-gouging laws for natural disasters?

A store in Florida sells hurricane supplies. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

When it comes to natural disasters, stores raising prices for essential items like food, water, and batteries can pose some serious obstacles for consumers. Thirty-four states have laws to prevent that sort of price-gouging, but Washington isn’t among them. So, why is that?

According to former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, the state’s consumer laws are already plenty strong.

“We don’t have a separate price gouging statute because we think that our consumer protection law — which prohibits unfair, deceptive acts or practices by a business — is all we need,” McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

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In the past, Washington has managed to go after companies and vendors suspected of raising prices unfairly, all without a specific price-gouging law to fall back on.

“We’ve used it over the years to go after everyone from Enron to flu vaccine makers, and others who we believed were unconscionably or charging unconscionably high prices,” McKenna noted.

In 2004, a shortage of available flu vaccine had many manufacturers in the state marking it up between 300 and 400 percent for consumers. That ultimately prompted then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire to issue a statewide warning.

In 2005, Washington was part of a $1.5 billion settlement from Enron, for engaging in “anti-competitive behaviors that drove up energy prices.”

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It’s instances like those that have McKenna doubting the need for further action to combat price-gouging.

“I don’t think we need a separate additional law, and I don’t think Washington consumers are worse off for it,” he said. “If they were, you’d see more reports of price gouging, and it frankly just is not a very common complaint in Washington state.”

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