Afunctional market economy requires informed consumers, who a sufficiently informed about the products and services that they consume. Despite there being difficulties to achieve an absolutely transparent market, suffice it to say that a level-playing field on the facts is desperately needed. However, both corporations and politicians are engaging in health scares to further a certain agenda, and it’s not for the better.
The politics of fear doesn’t only affect the question of immigration and international trade policy. When it comes to consumption goods, no product seems to be safe from questionable health claims. The most recent example is that of glyphosate, which came under fire for health concerns, even though the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the product is safe. The EFSA doesn’t seem to receive much confidence what so ever, as the recent debate on the legalisation of phosphate usage in the popular fast-food product döner kebab, came under fire for similar health concerns.
Blinded by the need for constant new bans, restrictions and regulations, parliamentarians care very little for exactly those: the facts. The EFSA has qualified a phosphate consumption of up to 4200 mg per day as harmless. As the average döner kebab contains about 134 mg of phosphate, you’d have to eat over 30 portions within a day to get even close to a situation in which you would have to worry about your health. Regardless of these 2013 findings, MEPs demand new investigation next year. Whether or not the parliamentarians expect there be considerable difference between the last findings seems unclear.
On this issue of tobacco, we find comparable deafness. When it comes to second-hand smoke, you’ll find very few politicians willing to concede that public-policy making in this area has been influenced by questionable scientific findings.
An immensely informative article by Jacob Grier in Slate finally sorted through the questionable “proof” behind the second-hand smoke . The bans had largely been implemented because early studies believed there to be a correlation between secondhand smoke and heart disease. Politicians, however, should have waited for more research to be done. In fact, Grier reveals that a 2006 study in the Piedmont region in Italy (published in the European Heart Journal) revealed an 11 percent drop in heart disease, a much smaller drop than the 60 percent that politicians had promised.
After a sweeping ban on smoking inside in England, a 2010 study found a heart attack reduction of only 2 percent. That number is so small that it might not be related to the bans at all. A 2008 study in New Zealand found no correlation whatsoever. The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management published a study in 2010 that also found no significant impact in any age group. Similar US-studies appeared in 2012 and 2014.
A notable example on the corporate side is that of researched published on the issue of hand dryers. A preparatory study for the Ecodesign Working Plan 2015-2017, did not investigate the latter product for its eventual health concerns, presenting a bias against the use of electric hand dryers. A 2008 study by the University of Westminster, which concluded that for hygienic reasons, electric hand dryers should be avoided, was funded by the European Tissues Symposium, the paper towel lobby, The paper towel industry fighting electric hand dryers may seem silly to the reader who is usually confronted with articles on immensely intricate foreign policy issues, but when public policy gets involved in this flawed scientific method of conducting research, then related financial situation is non-neglectable.
The sensationalist health scare tactic even went so far as, in the example of ARS Technica, which titles “Using a Dyson hand dryer is like setting off a viral bomb in a bathroom“. The same article then continues to explain that it had actually little to no evidence to support its claim. Not unproven enough to remove the headline it seems though…
As little as we can expect policy makers and the electorate to be informed about every little issue, as little should we be surprised that they are attempts to use the tactic of health scares to push certain special interests. Be it glyphosate, döner kebab, second-hand smoke, or hand dryers : we cannot have public policy-making be lead by emotions and dodgy science instead of facts. These decisions affect the livelihoods of the producers as well as the choice of the consumer.
Carefulness about health scares shouldn’t be conflated with naivety, but with a fear of being as pawns for a political or corporate agenda.