Entrepreneurs in the direct-mail business, and those who rely on them to reach new customers, have at least two reasons to worry about the future. First, a round of postal rate hikes is scheduled for July. Companies that rely on standard mail face big increases; some catalogers could pay 20 to 40 percent more. Even the U.S. Postal Service's board of governors acknowledges that "the increased rate could create an unnecessary degree of rate shock for small businesses," in the words of a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, legislators in 15 states (see list) have introduced bills to create the snail mail equivalent of popular Do Not Call and Do Not Fax registries. The legislation would let consumers opt out of junk mailings; most proposals would not cover business-to-business mailings and mail sent to existing customers. But many of the bills would impose fines for sending mail to consumers who had registered their addresses.

Environmental groups support the Do Not Mail laws, arguing that an estimated 100 million trees are cut down each year to produce the junk mail sent to U.S. households. "I think these bills are important even to those people who aren't necessarily concerned about the environment, people for whom junk and direct mail is an inconvenience, part of a monster cycle of waste," says Tim Sanchez of the Center for a New American Dream, a green consumer group.

Jerry Ceserale, head of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, argues that junk mail gets a bad rap. Half of all postal volume is standard mail, which is usually marketing related, and that half subsidizes the entire system, he says. The USPS agrees that state junk mail bans, which it opposes, could lead to a loss of revenue and cutbacks in service. Higher rates and the closing of post offices in out-of-the-way places could result, Ceserale warns. A USPS spokesperson denies that either of these steps would be taken, but won't say what measures would be considered.

The state bills face long odds, the spokesperson adds. The Constitution gives Congress and not the states the right to regulate mail. Still, the Supreme Court has granted the states some regulatory leeway. In a 1995 case, for example, the justices held that Florida could stop attorneys from dumping junk mail on residents for the first 30 days after a hurricane.

Junking Mail?

Attempts to create Do Not Mail lists have cropped up in these states.

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Vermont
  • Washington