Photo by Daniel Fink, MD

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Economists say that an informed consumer is a better consumer although it turns out that most consumers do a bad job of making what would appear to be rational decisions. A whole new field, behavioral economics, has developed over the last several decades to study how consumers make choices and how public policy can be altered to help consumers make better choices.

Proposals have been made in the U.S. over the last several years to improve food labels to provide better and more usable consumer information about calories and salt, but these have been mired in controversy. One might say that the perfect is the enemy of the good, even without opposition from one political party about anything protecting consumers from rapacious companies more concerned about profits than the physical health of those consuming their products.

A few years ago, Mexico dealt with the problem of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and early disease and mortality from these diseases by putting a simple warning label on junk food: EXCESO CALORIAS. Excess calories. That’s all. No detailed information about how many calories in each serving or each bag, no admonition or warning label like that on cigarette packages, just the simple, two-word information label.

I was unable to find any published reports about whether these labels have decreased junk food consumption, but there are reports of a soda tax decreasing soda consumption and actually changing dietary patterns in Philadelphia, so these “nanny state” methods do work, even if a similar effort failed in Cook County, Illinois.

Wouldn’t it be nice if smartphones and tablet devices and headphones carried similar warning labels? Our noise colleague Jan Mayes presented a paper at last summer’s Acoustical Society of America meeting documenting that personal audio system use is causing hearing loss and tinnitus in children as young as 9-11 years old, with almost 90% of Belgian high school juniors reporting temporary or permanent tinnitus.

I ate the bag of chips despite the warning label–I was waiting to board a plane in Mexico and there were limited food choices in the small airport waiting room–but I’m sure at least some people didn’t eat them. And I’m sure at least some people would heed a label informing them that they were purchasing a NOISY PRODUCT.