Warning labels are designed to inform consumers of the potential dangers of using a product, but they have become too popular to be beneficial.
“Warning labels were really quite rare until the 1960s,” said W. Kip Viscusi, a distinguished professor of law, economics and management at Vanderbilt University. “From the mid-1960s, cigarettes began to carry warning labels. Since then, other products have tried to emulate the cigarette experience.”
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Warning labels generally come in two forms: those that warn the consumer against purchasing the product, such as a label on a cigarette box that says, “This product may cause oral cancer” And those who warn of the dangers associated with misuse of a product may say, “To prevent this furniture from tipping over, it should be permanently attached to the wall.“
One of the problems researchers have identified is that people are desensitized to warning labels because they seem to be everywhere.
“One of my main complaints about warnings is that they’ve become ubiquitous,” Viscusi said. “There is a tendency to say things are dangerous. [and] Slap a warning on it, and it reduces the impact of other warnings that are there. So if everything in the supermarket is labeled as dangerous, you don’t know what to buy.”
Viscusi developed two criteria for effective warning labels: 1) they must provide new information to the consumer, and 2) the consumer must find the information credible.
“When companies are making statements against their financial interest, it’s going to be credible,” Viscusi said.
There has been pushback against putting warning labels on some products. In December 2022, a Federal Judge ruled that the US Food and Drug Administration cannot require tobacco companies to put graphic warning labels on cigarettes.
When it comes to making sure people are using products safely, consumer protection advocates say warning labels should be a last resort.
“Generally, self-warning labels [are] Just not effective, said Oren Shin, policy adviser at Consumer Reports. “They need to be paired with a really safe design.”
This is where product design safety ratings come in. It’s a multi-step process that aims to eliminate risk to users, and when that’s not possible, minimize it through security measures.
An example of safety, Shinn says, would be requiring a potentially dangerous product like a lawnmower to start only when the user pulls a lever and presses a button, rather than requiring one of those mechanisms.
The last level of safety classification is a warning label.
“I’ve probably seen hundreds of warning labels 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] Be the icing on the cake rather than the end.”
Watch the video Above to learn more about why warning labels aren’t working and what we can do about it.