Monday, April 2, 2018

Warning: Too many warnings dilute the value of being warned


     The Santa Barbara Biltmore is swanky. An enclave of Spanish revival cottages tucked amongst lush vegetation and tiled fountains. Right on the Pacific Ocean, you can do a few laps in its enormous pool, then step onto a sandy beach.
     A guest in one of the bungalows, say Fremont — they each have names — could wake up, feeling luxurious and pampered, wrap himself in a thick white robe and, musing whether to splurge on a room-service breakfast in the charming little courtyard, lazily flip open the menu and, among the freshly squeezed juices and sinful waffles, be confronted with:
Chemicals Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer or Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm May Be Present In Foods or Beverages Sold or Served Here.
Foods such as French fries, potato chips cooked in oil at high temperature can produce Proposition 65-listed chemicals such as acrylamide, which is known to the state to cause cancer. Broiling, grilling and barbecuing fish and meats can produce Proposition 65-listed chemicals such as benzo-a-pyrene, which is known to the State to cause cancer. Nearly all fish and seafood contain some amount of mercury and related compounds chemical known to the State of California to cause ...
     It goes on ... and on. But you get the idea. The warning even points out that drinking water out of the fancy Biltmore glasses might be a problem, since "consuming food of beverages that have been kept or served in leaded crystal products made of leaded crystal will expose you to lead ..."
     Welcome to California. The idea of the state being an asylum of health fanatics and lifestyle extremists might feel outdated, a 1970s cliche. Outdated because much of the country is imitating them now, with big business — hello, Whole Foods — catering to their whims.
     But stereotypes often have a grain of truth, and occasionally, California manages to top itself. Last Wednesday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge issued a ruling in a 2010 lawsuit that large businesses serving coffee must post cancer warnings or face a hefty fine because roasted coffee contains trace amounts of the same acrylamide that caused the Biltmore to try to slap its guests' hands away from the chips.
     News stories on the coffee warnings tend to overlook they’ll merely be a single chirp in a vast chorus of Golden State alarm.
     “The warnings are everywhere: parking lots, hardware stores, hospitals and just about any decent-sized business,” the Los Angeles Times noted in 2009, calling the law “a boon not only to environmental and public health advocates but to plaintiff lawyers, who have reaped significant settlements over chemicals that have never been proved to cause significant harm at the levels in which they are present. In 2008, for instance, a total of 199 lawsuits were settled, netting $14.6 million in attorney fees and just $4.6 million in civil penalties.”
     So … good for lawyers, good no doubt for the sign-making industry. So what’s the harm? The harm is that warnings over dubious perils dilute the value of warnings. Cigarette kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, and each warning label is a chance to reach out to a nicotine addict and nudge them toward changing their ways. Coffee doesn’t kill anybody — in fact, studies show that it’s beneficial to health — and so tagging it for some trace amount of something just trains the public to ignore warnings.
     You need to match the warning with the peril. The National Parks are good at this: visit Yellowstone, and stark signs advise you not to blunder into the boiling pools, because tourists do — 20 have died horrible scalding deaths. (In 2016, a 23-year-old from Oregon, leaning toward a thermal acidic pool to check how hot it was, fell in. By the time rescuers reached him, his body had entirely dissolved).
     Yellowstone does not, however, label every tree, even though you could be injured blundering into on, or receive painful splinters drawing your hand across it.
     There is one important warning that must be given before we move on. Warning: Bad laws have a way of sticking around —Proposition 65 was passed in 1986 by 63 percent of the voters. No one expects it to be repealed anytime soon.


  1. A big part of the problem with California's Prop 65 was that when it was passed in 1986, the technology that detects chemicals in food (or anything else) was not nearly as advanced as it is today. About 10 years after Prop 65 passed, the tech improved to the point where it could detect trace amounts that were nearly infinitesimal.

    The problem is, the law states that "any amount" of a carcinogen in food is unacceptable. The state regulators ruled that "any amount" means just what it says--even an amount so absurdly tiny that it couldn't possibly pose any real threat.

    To me this is yet another example of why those who profess to interpret laws "as written," based on the "original intent" of the lawmakers, are full of bull. It's just ridiculous not to take changes in technology and other circumstances into account when interpreting laws. This applies to health-related laws just as much as to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  2. At the risk of lining up with the "common sense" people, I have to say that warnings against even demonstrably hazardous substances or activities are generally ignored or defied (even by such wimpy types as I). Smoking has decreased since they put warning labels on cigarettes, but the price has also rose from 50 cents to 10 dollars a pack. I think the latter was more responsible for the decrease than the former. Warning that coffee is hot is nuts. When McDonald's was making coffee super hot and ignoring the complaints of those severely burned by same, did the burns go away because of warnings or because McDonald's started making their coffee a little less hot? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Starbucks will eventually put something on their coffee cups stating that acrylamide might or might not be harmful, though it would probably be more useful information for the consumer if the company listed the calories of a latte or a machiato.


    1. To each one's own... Er, different smokes for different folks... Uh, I beg to differ, Tate! (Well, I suppose "generally ignored or defied" is hard to argue with, but I'm speaking of my personal experience.) The Surgeon General's report on smoking came out in 1964; the first warnings on packs in the U. S. were evidently in 1966. Well before even an aging twit such as myself considered picking up the habit. Who knows what I'd have done otherwise (my father smoked for most of his life and all of my childhood and that didn't bother me much) but the news surrounding that report was enough to steer me clear. Forever. I never smoked (a cigarette.) For years, though, I understood -- yeah, folks are hooked, it'll take a while for this habit to fade away. The fact that any young people at all, these days, continue to buy cigarettes boggles my mind. But you may well be right about the price increase being a bigger factor in the decline in the percentage of folks smoking.

      Apparently, I'm a wimpier type than you are -- well, I'm sure that's clear to any EGD comment reader -- but things such as "nutrition facts" on packaged foods *do* influence my behavior. I always knew that a frozen pot pie, to cite one example, was not a health food. But until I saw the figures on the side of the box, I had no idea how much fat was crammed into those tasty bowls! Haven't had one in years, alas...

    2. Jakash: During a stint as a food-industry trade writer, I saw those things being made. The people at that plant were as nice as, well, pie, but I've never touched one of those things since.

  3. Momento mori

    'nuff said.

  4. This may have been just an urban legend, but when the first warnings on cigarettes came out,customers supposedly said to merchants: "Don't give me any of those packs with the cancer warnings. I don't want to get cancer. Give me one with some other kind of warning instead, like maybe heart disease or something."

    For the smoking population, denial has never been about that river in Egypt, or else smokers wouldn't continue to smoke. It took the shock of watching and hearing my mother-in-law and her kid brother, who wheezed their lives away from emphysema and lung cancer, respectively, to scare me straight and get me to quit cold turkey, after 32 years.


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