John Stossel: We are not idiots… Why warning labels are killing us

When you use a coffeepot, do you need a warning label to tell you: “Do not hold over people”?

Must a bicycle bell be sold with the warning: “Should be installed and serviced by a professional mechanic”? Of course not. Yet that bell also carries the warning: “Failure to heed any of these warnings may result in serious injury or death.”

This is nuts. It’s a bell.

The blizzard of warning labels means we often won’t read ones we should, like the Clorox label that warns, do not use bleach “with other product … hazardous gasses may result.” No kidding. Mixing bleach and ammonia creates gasses that can kill people.

But I rarely bother to read warning labels anymore, because manufacturers put them on everything.

A utility knife bears the warning: “Blades are sharp.”

I know about such dumb labels because Bob Dorigo Jones, author of “Remove Child Before Folding,” asks his readers and radio listeners to send in ridiculous labels for his “Wacky Warning Label” contest.

“We do this to point out how the rules that legislatures and Congress make favor litigation,” says Dorigo Jones. “We are the most litigious society on Earth. If the level of litigation in the United States was simply at the level of countries that we compete with for jobs in Asia and in Europe, we could save $589 billion a year.”

America has more silly warnings mainly because, unlike the rest of the world, we don’t have the “loser pays” rule in courts. That rule means that whoever wins a court battle is compensated by the loser. It creates an incentive not to bring frivolous cases.

In the U.S., the incentive is to try even dubious legal arguments and hope you’ll hit the jackpot. Or maybe your enemy will pay you to avoid the bigger cost of hiring lawyers to continue the fight.

More lawsuits mean more frightened corporate lawyers smearing labels on everything, just in case “lack of warning” is an issue in a lawsuit.

That’s probably why a toy Star Wars lightsaber comes with the label, “Not to Be Used as a Battle Device.” Why would they bother to say that? Did someone sue, claiming they thought a lightsaber would do what it does in Star Wars movies? I don’t know. The company never responded to our questions.

Some dumb labels are brought to us by dumb politicians. California requires warnings that something may be “toxic” or cause cancer on everything from foods to theme parks: “Disneyland Resort contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” Gee thanks, California, but it would probably be better to warn kids about alligators over in Florida.

Dorigo Jones offers a prize to whomever submits the wackiest label. The lightsaber label won this year, earning Susannah Peat of Carmel, Indiana, a thousand dollars. You can submit your choices to try to win next year’s prize.

Please do. It’s important to make fun of lawyer-driven stupidity that distracts us from more important risks.

I suppose I shouldn’t really blame companies. They’ve been sued successfully so many times for not having labels that they feel they must try to protect themselves. Injuries aren’t the real danger here. Lawyers and politicians are.

When companies get sued, they end up charging higher prices to cover the cost of the lawyers. So those warning labels not only distract us but also are part of a process that makes us all poorer.

I worry that they also make us stupider.

Economists say that when people assume that government protects us from all possible harm, we acquire a false sense of security. We stop looking out for ourselves.

Those warning labels give us the impression that the law has assessed every possible risk — if something were seriously dangerous, government wouldn’t allow it.

Lawyers and legislators’ insistence that most every action be bound by written rules makes many of us forget to use own brains. 

John Stossel is the host of “Stossel” (Fridays at 9 PM/ET), a weekly program highlighting current consumer issues with a libertarian viewpoint. Stossel also appears regularly on Fox News Channel (FNC) providing signature analysis. Click here for more information on John Stossel.

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