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The Cell Phone Industry: Big Tobacco 2.0?
CNET.com, March 8, 2005
by Molly Wood, Senior Editor
there's this incredibly popular product that has widespread consumer
use and a massive marketing presence. Nearly everyone uses it, and it
has very high social acceptance, even though some people find it
annoying when it's used in public. It's highly habit-forming; people
who use the product on a regular basis find it almost impossible to
Unfortunately, studies start to appear showing that the product might
be harmful to its users--even cancer-causing. The product's
manufacturers deny the presence of any danger and even spend millions
of dollars trying to discredit the research that points to problems.
Then, an insider emerges, seemingly with proof that the product could
be dangerous. The industry agrees to publish warning data about the
product, but continues to maintain that the product itself is safe for
use. Lawsuits against the product's manufacturers are filed, but all
are dismissed. Industry analysts know that any case that does succeed
could start a domino effect of future lawsuits, which keeps the
industry determined to maintain that the product is harmless, despite
increasing evidence to the contrary.
Well, put down your lighter, I'm talking about cell phones. I've
already maintained that I don't like the cell phone industry's
iron-clad control over phone releases and pricing, its ever-lengthening
contracts, and the annoying habit it has of crippling Bluetooth phones
so that I can't use them the way I want to. But it takes only a few
minutes of looking into the cell phone radiation quagmire before I
start to think, man, these guys have Big Tobacco 2.0 written all over
them. Actually, I'm not the first to think of it, but a recent article
in the University of Washington alumni magazine indicates that the
behaviors aren't going away, even as the potentially damning research
continues to mount.
OK, I know the obvious differences: I'm sure cell phone manufacturers
are not deliberately making their products more addictive, for
example--although they are, of course, always offering new and improved
services and ever-increasing buckets of minutes, which can't help but
encourage us to use our phones more and more frequently. But, just as
Big Tobacco did, the cell phone industry seems bound and determined to
thwart and deny any suggestion that its product might be dangerous.
history of bad news
For example, in 1994, University of Washington bioengineering
professors Henry Lai and Narendra Singh found that the DNA in rats'
brains was damaged after two hours of exposure to levels of microwave
radiation considered safe by the government. When Lai and Singh
published the research, a leaked memo from Motorola's head of global
strategy, Norm Sandler, talked about ways to minimize damage by
undermining their research, with Sandler writing, "I think that we have
sufficiently war-gamed the Lai/Singh issue." Ouch. Worse, research
biologist Jerry Phillips, who was paid by Motorola to conduct similar
testing, says he was able to duplicate Lai and Singh's findings, but
was then asked not to publish the research and was subsequently shunned
by the company. Motorola says it told Phillips that his findings needed
clarification, and the industry still maintains that Lai and Singh's
results have never been duplicated and can't be considered legitimate.
The biggest Russell Crowe-style insider in this case, though, is Dr.
George Carlo, who was hired by the Cellular Telecommunications &
Internet Association to head up a $28 million research program into
possible health effects from cellular phones. Unfortunately, he now
says his findings show an increased rate of brain cancer deaths,
development of tumors, and genetic damage among heavy cell phone users.
He wrote this letter of concern to the president of AT&T
Corporation and later went public with his findings after what he
considered to be neglect by the industry. He's since broken with the
industry, become a vocal critic, and coauthored a book called Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age--so
you can tell he's on the "cell phones could cause cancer" side of
Meanwhile, more studies keep coming, and they seem to be getting worse.
A study funded by the European Union reported last December that radio waves from mobile phones do,
definitively, damage DNA and other cells in the body--and that the
damage extended to the next generation of cells. Even though mutated
cells are considered a possible cause of cancer, the UK National
Radiological Protection Board said that since the study didn't show
that the damage definitely led to disease, consumers shouldn't worry
too much about the findings.
Uh, right. In the meantime, the report recommended that children use
mobile phones only in emergency situations. You know, just in case. How
The cell phone industry hasn't commissioned another large-scale
study--at least not publicly--since its fateful encounter with Dr.
Carlo--and why would they? They're in a catch-22. It's a multibillion
dollar industry, and they simply can't afford to find out,
definitively, that cell phones are dangerous. Worse, just like the
tobacco companies, if they start issuing warnings and precautionary
tales now, it'll look like they knew all along that the radio waves
were dangerous, opening them up to major liability claims. They've
already dodged one big, big bullet--an $800 million lawsuit against
Motorola and cell phone carriers was thrown out in 2002, with the judge
ruling that there wasn't sufficient evidence for trial. Since then,
neurologist Dr. Christopher Newman, who filed the lawsuit, has died of
Listen, I use a cell phone, and I'm not trying to scare the bejesus out
of everyone. But I do use a headset
when I'm talking for any long period of time, and I carry that sucker
in my purse, not my pocket. (I know you guys don't have that luxury,
but reconsider the briefcase, OK?) And if you're shopping for a new
phone, you might want to check our cell phone radiation chart to see
which ones carry a low dose.
In a few more years, we'll either know for sure that cell phones can
cause cancer, or we'll know they can't. I just hope we don't find out
the hard way--through subpoenaed documents from cell phone makers and
carriers who've been trying to minimize their damages and maximize
their profits for more than a decade.
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