Warning labels are designed to inform consumers of the potential risks of using a product, but they have become too widespread 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. “Starting in the mid-1960s, cigarettes began to have a warning label. Since then, other products have followed and tried to mimic the cigarette experience.”
Warning labels usually come in two forms: those that warn the consumer against buying the product, such as a cigarette box label that says, “This product may cause mouth cancer,” and those that warn of the risks associated with improper use of a product and may say, “To prevent this furniture from tipping over, it must be permanently attached to the wall.”
One of the problems the 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 is a tendency to say that things are risky [and] give it a warning and it tends to dilute the impact of the other warnings that are out there. So if everything in the supermarket is labeled as dangerous, you don’t know what to buy.”
Viscusi has developed two criteria for effective warning labels: 1) they must provide new information to consumers, and 2) the consumer must find the information credible.
“When companies make statements against their financial interests, it tends to be credible,” Viscusi said.
There has been a backlash 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 use products safely, consumer protection advocates say warning labels should be a last resort.
“Generally, warning labels themselves [are] just not effective,” said Oriene Shin, policy advisor at Consumer Reports. “They really have to be combined with safe design.”
This is where the product design security hierarchy comes in. This is a multi-step process intended to eliminate risk to the consumer and, when that is not possible, minimize it through safeguards.
An example of a safeguard, Shin says, would be requiring a potentially dangerous product like a lawnmower to start only if the user pulls a lever and presses a button, rather than requiring just one of those procedures.
The last level in the security hierarchy 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] the icing on the cake instead of the end is everything.”
Watch the video above to learn more about why warning labels don’t work and what we can do about it.