Warning labels are intended to inform consumers of potential risks when using a product, but they are too widespread to be of any use.
“Warning labels were actually pretty rare up until the 1960s,” said W. Kip Viscusi, a distinguished professor of law, economics, and management at Vanderbilt University. “From the mid-1960s, cigarettes were labeled with a warning. Since then, other products have followed suit and tried to emulate the cigarette experience.”
Health warnings generally come in two forms: those warning the consumer not to purchase the product, such as: For example, a label on a packet of cigarettes that says “This product may cause oral cancer” and those warning of the risks of using a product improperly, perhaps saying “To prevent this piece of furniture from tipping over, it must be permanently attached to the wall.”
One of the problems that researchers have pointed out is that people are desensitized to warning labels because they seem to be everywhere.
“One of my main complaints about warnings is that they have become ubiquitous,” Viscusi said. “There’s a tendency to say things are risky [and] Put a warning on it, and that tends to weaken the impact of the other warnings that are out there. So when everything is labeled as dangerous in the supermarket, you don’t know what to buy.”
Viscusi has developed two criteria for effective health warnings: 1) they must provide consumers with new information and 2) the consumer must believe the information is credible.
“If companies make statements against their financial interests, that would usually be credible,” Viscusi said.
There has been opposition to placing health warnings on certain products. In December 2022, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cannot require tobacco companies to place graphic health warnings on cigarettes.
When it comes to ensuring people use products safely, consumer advocates believe warning labels should be the last resort.
“Generally, warnings are in and of themselves.” [are] just not effective,” said Oriene Shin, policy adviser at Consumer Reports. “They really need to be coupled with safe design.”
This is where the security hierarchy of product design comes into play. This is a multi-stage process that aims to eliminate risks for the consumer and, if this is not possible, to minimize them through protective measures.
An example of a protective measure, according to Shin, would be that a potentially dangerous product like a lawn mower should only be started when the user pulls a lever and presses a button, and not just one of those procedures.
The final level of the security hierarchy is a warning sign.
“I’ve probably seen hundreds of warnings in the last week and we probably don’t remember any of them,” Shin said. “And that’s the problem with just relying on warning labels. [They’re] the icing on the cake and not the end of it all.”
watch the video Above you can read more about why warning signs are not working and what we can do about it.