How does an industry lobby punish a city -- that's right, an entire city -- for requiring more public disclosure about the industry's products?
With money, of course. As you might expect from an industry lobby, it's all about money.
The city in the crosshairs is San Francisco, one of the nation's great historic and cultural centers. The Cellular Telephone Industry Association, CTIA for short, is threatening to stop holding conventions there and is urging other electronics makers to join its economic boycott.
All because the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has voted 10-to-1 to require that cell phone retailers post the radiation output of various cell phones. The San Francisco lawmakers acted after the Environmental Working Group published an interactive Cell Phone Radiation Report detailing how emission levels varied widely among more than 1,000 cell phones and smartphones.
Maureen Dowd on cell phone radiation
In a column headlined "Are Cells the New Cigarettes?," New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd writes that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was warned by CTIA lobbyists that they might withdraw the industry's convention, scheduled for October 2010, and that they intended to urge Apple, Cisco and other computer and electronics giants to shun the city by the Bay.
"Shame on them, to threaten the city," Newsom said, according to Dowd. "It's about as shortsighted as one could get in terms of a brand."
Electronics industry adopts tobacco lobby tactics
The best defense is usually a good offense. The real question is, why is the cell phone industry so defensive? Why is it taking pages from the tobacco lobby's playbook? Intimidation and bluster, as we all know, didn't work so well for Big Tobacco.
It's not as if the San Francisco government or EWG is advising people to stop buying and using cell phones. The city's law mandates that cell phone makers and vendors disclose in retail stores what they are already required by law to tell the Federal Communications Commission -- and the public. The only difference is, the information will be posted so that potential cell phone buyers can read it in stores, instead of being forced to burrow into the fine print of pamphlets, websites, technical manuals or legal filings.
EWG takes the position that until the many uncertainties about cell phone radiation are resolved, it's smart for consumers to buy phones with the lowest emissions. To that end, EWG has set up an interactive database to help consumers make informed choices.
Don't ask, don't tell
Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle quotes CTIA Vice President John Walls as saying, rather sulkily, "We felt they sent us a message about how they felt about the industry and the technology. And if that's how the city feels, then we have to look at other viable options." The industry lobby's reflexive stance has been to deny the slightest possibility that cell phone radiation, high, low or mid-range, could ever be harmful. After the Board of Supervisors acted, Walls asserted, "The ordinance will potentially mislead consumers, suggesting that some phones are 'safer' than others."
The fact is, nobody knows. The world's leading experts on radiofrequency emissions, many of whom have been cooperating in a global, decade-long series of studies on the possible public health effects of wireless communications, have come up with inconclusive but troubling scientific evidence that long-term exposure to radiofrequency energy emitted by wireless devices could be linked to cancer, benign tumors and other health problems.
EU financing new study on child, teen cell phone use
Much more research is essential. Scientists continue to labor at the vexing mysteries of radiofrequency emissions, particularly those that touch on the potentially greater impact of this relatively new technology on children's thinner skulls. The European Union is funding a broad new study that, the lead scientist has announced, will "investigate the risk of brain tumors from mobile phone use in childhood and adolescence."
Maybe industry lobbyists are worried because discussion of the possible risks of cell phone radiation is no longer confined to wonks, geeks and earnest enviros. It's now part of the national conversation. We all care, because, as the industry's own figures show, very few of us want to do without our cell phones.
Still -- the questions we're asking aren't softballs. They deserve answers
Vogue Magazine weighs in
Take the July issue of Vogue Magazine, the first and last words in all things haute and luxe, whose audience of high-powered professionals demands, and gets, serious, sophisticated reporting on personal health topics. Vogue examines the cell phone issue under the headline "Wake-up Call," with the subhead: "With recent research raising questions about dangers of cell phone radiation, especially to children, Robert Sullivan wonders why more people aren't listening."
Why indeed? Sullivan, who wrote the Vogue article, interviewed EWG senior scientist Olga Naidenko about comparisons between lung cancer among cigarette smokers and brain cancer among cell phone users. His conclusion:
"Making all cell phones safer is not like asking for a mission to Mars. It's doable."
So why doesn't the cell phone industry just do it?