Cell Phone Danger: Breaking Dam or Fake News?

California recently advised people that cell phones could harm their health. What should makers and carriers do about it, if anything?

There have been longstanding suspicions that cell phone radiation causes tumors, and regular retorts that those fears have no basis in science (or in any reportable health statistics). My smartphone produces static if I hold it too close to my clock radio, but that doesn’t mean it does the same thing to my brain, right? Perhaps concerns are similar to those about GMOs, which come more from vague discomfort than real causality?

Then there’s California and a government that chooses to regulate really wacky things, like throwing Frisbees on LA County beaches, and insist that farmers capture cow farts.

So my bet is that the cell phone makers and carriers do nothing in response to California’s health warning. Most, if not all of them already begrudge health concerns, like Apple’s “legal” explanation buried about a half-dozen pages into its website, and Verizon’s somewhat similar citation of compliance with existing laws.

Their POV is that there’s no problem, but that if consumers feel concerned or uncomfortable, they should follow usage rules that, oddly enough, mirror what California just recommended.

But I wonder if that’s not the best decision from a communications perspective, given the following three scenarios:

Other states adopt it.

California is a trendsetter for other states when it comes to legislative and regulatory action, most recently in adopting emission standards and, perhaps moving forward, raising the minimum wage. Its Proposition 65 set the standard for product label warnings of potential carcinogenic ingredients. So it’s not impossible that other health authorities will issue warnings, which could 1) Prompt consumers to start reducing usage, which could hurt revenues, and/or 2) Trigger more questions and formal research, to which makers and carriers would have to respond.

Do health concerns become a chronic drag on the cell phone industry? Do they get worse? Is it enough to cite the law, and tell people their health is a “personal choice?”

It spurs legal action.

Now that a government authority has noted a connection between cell phone use and health issues, maybe lawsuits will follow, whether in California or anywhere else. Whether or not that have merit won’t be the issue; They’ll enable depositions and revelations from the deepest, darkest corners of the industry, which could 1) Cost the industry lots of money and time in complying with court-ordered solicitations, and/or 2) Discover additional facts that will perpetuate or grow the processes.

Do health concerns become a legal expense, as makers and carriers fight what looks like a slow, drawn out retreat (like cigarette makers)? Does this strategy hasten the effects the outcomes of scenario #1, and visa versa? Does saying nothing end up saying something in the courts of law and public opinion?

They’re right.

If analogies to cigarette or oil company complicity in killing people or the planet proved real, what would it mean to the cell phone industry when it’s determined beyond an informed doubt that their products are dangerous? We’re talking losses in the billions, hundreds of thousands unemployed, and immeasurable pain and suffering inflicted on customers all over the world.

You’d hope that there was some some big, secret Manhattan Project for inventing an alternative technology, frequency, or whatever. It could be one of the century’s biggest innovation challenges. Would it make sense for the cell phone industry to get behind such an initiative, if not actively encourage it…the earlier the better, since the effects of the other scenarios just get progressively worse over time?

There’s a fourth scenario, of course: There’s no health issue whatsoever…it’s fake news…and the California warning will quickly be forgotten. A small number of fringe research studies will continue to make pointed allegations, and some consumers will continue to feel unease every time their smartphones make their radios buzz.

So doing nothing might be just what the doctor ordered.

Or not.

[This essay originally appeared at Medium]