Warning! This column may inflame your eyes and brain

By David Lazarus

Los Angeles Times

You encounter so many warning labels on a daily basis that you probably no longer read them. And even if you do, it’s nearly impossible to determine if a product represents a true hazard or if you’re just encountering weasel words designed to avoid lawsuits.

This is a problem.

A paper in the Harvard Business Review concluded that the U.S. warning-label system “fails miserably at distinguishing between large and small risks.”

Researchers from Harvard and Vanderbilt said consumers should think about the difference between wolves (potentially very dangerous) and puppies (not so much).

“The problem with our present warning system is that it shouts ‘Danger!’ for both wolves and puppies,” they wrote. “Such a system is of little value; people quickly learn to ignore warnings since they encounter vastly more puppies than wolves. The result is that when a wolf is truly present, people pay little heed.”

There are few wolves in the consumer world as ferocious as cigarettes, which why their packaging explicitly warns that “smoking causes lung cancer.”

But that message might be diluted in many consumers’ eyes by, say, language required by California’s Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. It requires state businesses to post signs warning of the presence of chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects.

However, because the law covers more than 800 chemicals, such signs can be ubiquitous in a consumer’s daily travels. This, the researchers said, is a classic example of a warning-label puppy — yes, you could get bit, but it’s highly unclear if there’s actually any danger.

As a result, it becomes all too easy to discount the cancer risk of cigarettes if you’re told you’re facing other cancer risks just by entering a store or office building.

“We need a system that allows people to distinguish between a modest risk and a truly substantial risk,” said W. Kip Viscusi, professor of law, economics and management at Vanderbilt who co-wrote the paper.

“People’s eyes glaze over when they look at a warning,” he told me. “They simply don’t read it at all.”

A big problem, Viscusi said, is that U.S. companies err on the side of caution by “overwarning” of every possible risk or side effect as a legal precaution. By including all potential dangers, regardless of how remote or silly, corporate lawyers figure that aggrieved customers will have no room for litigation.

Perhaps that’s why drug marketer Prestige Brands includes on its warnings for the over-the-counter insomnia remedy Nytol that the product “may cause drowsiness.” It’s a sleeping pill! Nytol users also are warned that they shouldn’t drive “or perform other possibly unsafe tasks.”

Warning labels have beenwith us since the Federal Caustic Poison Act was adopted in 1927. They became more commonplace when safety labels were required for food and drugs in 1938. Cigarette warnings entered the picture in the mid-1960s.

Expansion of government requirements in the 1980s made warning labels a routine part of many consumer products, the researchers found. “Now, in the early 21st century,” they wrote, “despite the large differences among products bearing warnings, our system is often one-style-fits-all.”

Clearly the idea behind warning labels is important. Consumers should know the risks before buying or using a product. But how do we make labels more effective?

The researchers said a first step would be to stop branding products as dangerous if they represent only a marginal risk.

“This practice leads highly cautious consumers to lump low-risk products in with mass-marketed products that actually merit such a warning and encourages many others to simply ignore warnings,” they said.

“In addition, warnings should be worded so that consumers can at least roughly estimate the actual risk … given how each product is typically used.”

Viscusi said warning labels also need to be more straightforward, which means ending the practice of jam-packing them with every possible hazard.

For instance, Pfizer’s Chantix pills are intended to help people quit smoking — a good thing. The warnings, however, state there’s a possibility of “suicidal thoughts or actions, anxiety, panic, aggression, anger, mania, abnormal sensations, hallucinations, paranoia or confusion.”

That’s aside from a risk of constipation, vomiting, seizures, memory loss, sleepwalking, rashes and “swelling of the face, mouth and throat.”

“The objective of warnings is to inform people, not scare them,” Viscusi said. “Listing everything linked to a drug doesn’t necessarily foster better decisions.”

Viscusi said the Food and Drug Administration might mollify lawyers by offering companies “safe harbor” after signing off on a warning label. In other words, the business would be shielded from disclosure-related lawsuits once federal authorities deem its labeling adequate.

The researchers concluded that “our cluttered system of warnings must reserve real warnings for the biggest risks.”

— Los Angeles Times

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