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Stop Me Before I Call Again

A Commentary By Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gavin Newsom is at it again. The San Francisco mayor's latest foray into annoying nanny statism is a proposal, reported in The Chronicle last week, to require the city's cell phone retailers to post the radiation levels of their products.

Where to begin?

In other cities, mayors usually try to make it easier for local businesses to prosper. But in The Special City, the mayor somehow manages to find ways that, if anything, make it harder for commercial enterprises to compete with out-of-town retailers.

In San Francisco, that's not a priority. Newsom wants to require cell phone companies to post warnings for an ostensible cancer threat that has not been established.

Don't take my word for it. The Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration say cell phones sold in America are safe. The World Health Organization says they are not a health risk.

The Environmental Working Group has found studies that suggest that there could be problems from long-term cell phone use.

On the other hand, the American Cancer Society -- which isn't afraid to cry "carcinogen" -- looked at studies on cell phone use and cancer and found the following: "Patients with brain tumors do not report more cell phone use overall than the controls. This finding is true when all brain tumors are considered as a group, when specific types of tumors are considered, and when specific locations within the brain are considered. In fact, most of the studies show a trend toward (SET ITAL) a lower risk of brain tumors among cell phone uses, for unclear reasons (END ITAL)." (My italics.) The Cancer Society did warn that there has not been enough research to determine if cell phones might affect children differently than adults.

Now, I would not suggest that Newsom require that cell phone retailers post signs that say that adult cell phone users may be less likely to get cancer.

For one thing, at some point, researchers probably will find some kind of link between gluing one's ear to a mobile device and a disease -- if only because cell phone addicts often work nonstop, talk too loudly and sometimes walk in front of moving cars. These days, everything eventually gets linked to cancer.

But couldn't the mayor wait until a health authority or cancer-fighting organization deemed cell phones to be carcinogenic?

Of course not. Why, the French Senate is considering restrictions on the promotion and sale of cell phones to children. And as Newsom told The Chronicle's Heather Knight, "If we prevail, and I believe we will prevail, other cities will follow suit."

The siren call -- a Model for Other Cities -- is ineluctable to a mayor who cannot resist the whiff of bragging rights at the Davos Economic Forum annual confab.

Newsom can point to the city's Precautionary Principle Ordinance, which cites "a duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm." That's EssEff-ese for: more mandates for warning signs.

After all, who possibly could object to signs that simply inform consumers? Problem is, after the passage of Proposition 65, which mandated warning signs for anything remotely toxic, in 1986, Californians don't even notice warning signs. You see them in buildings, on line, in elevators -- even at the cell phone store -- except you don't notice them because they're like background noise.

So an Outline by Team Newsom proposes to get around warning-blindness by requiring that stores post a phone's SAR -- or Specific Absorption Rate, a new term you can learn and forget -- in type as large as the font for the phone's price. (Talk about your invitation to small print.)

The most annoying part of all: Newsom and city supervisors spend too much time trying to do other people's jobs -- when they ought to be working on improving the quality of life in San Francisco.

There's no need to be a fill-in for the FDA. If Newsom thinks it is his job to reduce risky behavior, he instead could focus on the estimated 900-plus new cases of HIV in the city each year.

Closer to home, if Newsom feels the urge to warn people of potential threats, he might want to put up a warning signs under Welcome to San Francisco banners -- that disclose the city's 99 homicides in 2008. As the precautionary principle ordinance notes, the public has a "right to know."

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