Public mistrust of corporate America translates into enthusiasm for greater regulation of the least trusted industries, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

When politicians debate the need to increase, decrease or change government regulation, they often do so in a generic way without reference to any particular industries, Harris points out. “They talk of the need to ‘cut red tape and burdensome regulation,’ to have ‘stricter oversight of accounting practices’ or call for ‘stronger enforcement of environmental standards.’”

The public, on the other hand, eschews ideological positions on regulation. It tends to see different industries very differently and to distinguish between the regulation of one industry and another. Majorities favor more regulation of some industries, but not of others. For example, the public is seven times more likely to want increased regulation of managed care companies than to demand regulation of computer manufacturers.

The Harris study showed a national sample of 2,271 adults a list of 15 industries and asked them which ones should be more regulated, and which should be less regulated. They were also asked which ones are generally honest and trustworthy—defined by whether they would normally believe a statement by a company in that industry.

Four industries were mentioned by more than fifty percent of those surveyed as needing more regulation, and the top three are all in the health care industry: managed care (60 percent), health insurance (59 percent) and pharmaceuticals (57 percent). The only other industry to be mentioned by more than half is the oil industry (52 percent).

Other industries where relatively large numbers favor more regulation are tobacco (44 percent), life insurance (35 percent), hospitals (35 percent), airlines (31 percent) and telephone companies (30 percent).

Most respondents (57 percent) did not believe that any of the fifteen industries should be regulated less strictly than they are now, and few people mentioned any one industry. The industries mentioned most often as requiring less regulation are computer software companies (18 percent), computer hardware companies (17 percent) and supermarkets (17 percent).

No industry was seen as trustworthy by a majority of respondents, but there was similar variation among respondents on which industries were most trustworthy. Relatively large numbers trust supermarkets (40 percent), banks (35 percent), hospitals (34 percent), computer hardware companies (27 percent), packaged food companies (23 percent), and computer software companies (22 percent).

On the other hand, only very few people believe that tobacco companies (3 percent), managed care companies (4 percent), oil companies (4 percent), and health insurance companies (7 percent) are generally honest and trustworthy.

As Harris points out, there is a strong correlation between trust and the need for regulation. While there are some exceptions, the survey generally found that the lower the level of trust, the greater the perceived need for regulation. Industries that want to avoid onerous regulation need to work hard at earning the public’s trust.

According to Dr. Robert Blendon of Harvard, a leading academic authority on public opinion and health care, “Prior research suggests that Congress and state legislatures pay a lot of attention to high levels of public concern about the behavior of specific industries. When the nation’s focus on the Iraq war and terrorism becomes less riveting, we are likely to see legislatures respond to these poll findings with more oversight and regulatory proposals aimed at the health plan and pharmaceutical industries. Also, if gasoline prices do not fall soon, oil companies will find themselves in the same spotlight.”