NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Risks, Real And Phantom

December 13, 2000

The news media's emphasis on the bizarre and unusual has led to extensive regulations based on a small but highly publicized number of deaths, says researcher Lydia Miljan in one of the essays in "Safe Enough? Managing Risk and Regulation," published by Canada's Fraser Institute.

  • Media coverage of cancer emphasizes risks beyond the control of individuals -- such as chemicals in the environment -- while ignoring or downplaying information that industrial products cause less than 1 percent of cancer deaths.
  • However, lifestyle factors such as diet or alcohol and tobacco use, which cause almost three-quarters of cancer deaths, get little attention.
  • Similarly, the media emphasize high-risk but rare accidents, such as deaths caused by flying truck tires or personal watercraft, when diseases far outpace accidents as a cause of death.

The media also tend to misrepresent the degree of scientific acceptance of controversial claims -- such as the link between ozone depletion and melanoma, a deadly but rare skin cancer -- while accepting as fact dubious claims by various activists concerning links between brain cancer and cellular telephone use.

Miljan says the emphasis on unusual and bizarre risks makes it difficult for the public to judge the various risks they do face. And resources wasted on decreasing or limiting minute risks could, paradoxically, put more lives in danger.

For example, inflammability regulations for children's sleepwear costs $1.5 million per life saved while 30 percent of those children live in homes with no smoke detectors, which cost $200,000 per life saved.

The media-favored, quick-fix solution is usually more government regulation.

Source: Lydia Miljan, with Kate Morrison and Kelly Torrance, "Unknown Causes, Unknown Risks" in Laura Jones, ed., "Safe Enough? Managing Risk and Regulation," 2000, Fraser Institute, 4th Floor, 1770 Burrard Street, Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6J 3G7, (604) 688-0221.


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