OGDEN — Before the pandemic, economist and university professor Gavin Roberts would have never imagined his academic research would take him into the realm of toilet paper.

But the global spread of COVID-19 and co-occurring shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer provided a rare opportunity to study the effects of price gouging laws in a time of widespread emergency. Ordinarily, emergencies are localized in nature such as a natural disaster.

A majority of U.S. states, including Utah, have price gouging laws, which are intended to prevent exorbitant prices being charged for critical goods and help ensure consumers have access to those goods in times of emergency.

Recently published research by Roberts, assistant professor of economics at Weber State University, and Rik Chakraborti, assistant professor of economics at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, suggest price gouging laws likely contribute to shortages of critical goods.

Roberts’ and Chakraborti’s research, published in the Journal of Private Enterprise, found “robust evidence that anti-gouging laws increased (Google) searches for hand sanitizer, and some evidence of similar impacts on toilet paper. These results corroborate predictions regarding the shortage-inducing or aggravating tendencies of anti-gouging laws, and they inform the ongoing public debate on anti-gouging laws and their potential effects during public health emergencies like COVID-19.”

The journal article cites a petition started in March 2020 that has been signed by some 190 economists that asks state legislatures to repeal price gouging laws “to ensure health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic.”

The petition said in part, “all of these laws are a form of price control, and they cause the shortages of the very products that can ensure our health and survival during this coronavirus epidemic, such as masks, sanitizers, gloves, testing kits and other essential medical, hygiene and food supplies.”

Roberts said he would not go so far to call for repeal of Utah’s law, “but thinking about those consequences of price gouging laws, that they’d probably exacerbate shortages, is important to consider in certain situations.”

Roberts and Chakraborti analyzed numbers of online searches for toilet paper and hand sanitizer, as well as lotion as a control variable. They compared states that implemented bans on price gouging from Feb. 15 to March 25 to states that did not.

In 2020, searches for “where to buy toilet paper” peaked nationwide and in Utah during the week of March 15-21, while interest in hand sanitizer peaked the week prior. In Google’s “where to buy” search category for all of 2020, toilet paper and hand sanitizer were among the top five searches, which also included face masks and gaming consoles PS5 and Xbox Series X.

The study controlled for other variables that might influence the results, including population density, average household size, population, racial demographics and rates of intrastate travel as measured by cellphone data, since some consumers may search for products in person rather than online.

“When there are shortages, people search more online for goods that are in high demand,” Roberts said in a university press release.

If prices for hand sanitizer and toilet paper were allowed to rise, people would be less likely to hoard them, Roberts said.

“We would hope that that would push back on that ‘I’m going to hoard’ mentality,” he said.

But price gouging laws curb price increases in times of emergency. Consequently, “you can imagine those people out there that have basements full of toilet paper, right? Well, they got that basement full of paper at a low price,” Roberts said, explaining price gouging laws essentially subsidized this behavior.

While many retailers instituted purchase limits, their effect is limited because consumers come up with workarounds such as visiting multiple stores, reentering a store or dropping by the same store daily to buy the maximum amount of a limited product.

“Generally we’d prefer probably a higher price, but at least everybody can find the toilet paper that they need,” he said.

In areas without price gouging laws, abnormally high prices are temporary because they incentivize buyers and sellers to behave in ways that resolve shortages while also lowering price, the university press release states.

The journal articles concludes: “Our results inform the recently rekindled policy debate about anti-gouging laws. The naïve appeal on moral grounds or resulting political popularity notwithstanding, economists have long argued that anti-gouging laws, which intend to restrict disaster-induced price surges, end up causing shortages. So long as empty in-store shelves lead to increased web searches for consumer products, our results confirm these shortage-inducing tendencies of anti-gouging laws.”

This summer, the Utah Legislature’s Business and Labor Interim Committee voted to study the topic and consider updates to Utah’s price gouging law.

Three bills have been filed by lawmakers with respect to Utah’s price gouging law. SB74, sponsored by Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, seeks to repeal the state’s Price Controls During Emergencies Act.

Two other bills seek to amend the law.

SB86, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, seeks to amend the standard of evidence required to cite a person for a violation of the act.

Meanwhile, HB157, sponsored by Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, seeks to amend the definition of “excessive price” and define “margin” and “total cost.”

No action has been taken on the bills in the opening days of the 2021 legislative session that began Tuesday.