Cell Phones, the New Tobacco

September 28th, 2009 in Current Events by Gerald D. Swick

Memo to cell phone manufacturers and service providers: Start saving money now for the lawsuits that are coming a decade or two down the road.

Don’t believe me? Ask the tobacco companies. Big Tobacco wound up paying big bucks after class-action lawsuits claimed BT was responsible for smokers’ additions.

Now, I’m not one of BT’s friends. If you put all the cigarettes I’ve smoked in my life together, you might – might – have two packs. Throw in a half-box of cigars and a few ceremonial pipes, and you have the sum total of my tobacco use. I lost my father to lung cancer, though how much of that was due to smoking and how much to coal-dust-induced Black Lung is anyone’s guess.

But I have always found the people who claimed they didn’t know smoking was bad for them a trifle hypocritical. C’mon – get real.

On Feb. 16, 1882, the Louisville Courier-Journal declared the cigarette had done excellent service as “a fool-killer.”

In August 1887, the Detroit Free Press said, “Of all the forms of using tobacco, the small paper-covered tube known as the cigarette is the most deadly,” although the DFP seemed to be as much concerned about the paper the tobacco was rolled in as it was about the tobacco itself. The Free Press claimed smoking had increased 500 percent in four years, although it didn’t say how it arrived at that statistic.

It should be noted here that cigarettes were a by-product of the Civil War. Men unable to obtain enough tobacco for a decent pipeful, let alone procure a cigar, began rolling scraps of tobacco in paper and smoking them, thereby creating the original Marlboro man (Encyclopedia of Kentucky, Somerset Press, 1987).

The point is, these warnings go back a century or more. But people in the mid- to late 20th century didn’t know smoking was dangerous? Riiiiiiiiight.

Now, back to cell phones. Some years ago, a study found that links between cell phone use and tumors was inconclusive. Not non-existent – inconclusive. Did this cause consumers to say, “Hmm. Maybe I’d better think twice about buying that cell phone. Maybe three or four times before giving one to my kids”?

Oh, hell, no. They said, “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”

Recent medical studies, primarily from Europe, have raised new questions about those cute little microwave-emitting phones, and last week scientists testified on the subject before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. (Yes, I know a Congressional Committee on Oversight and Reform is an oxymoron, but that’s a whole ‘nuther issue.)

David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, warned that we “must not repeat the situation we had with the relationship between smoking and lung cancer where we … waited until every ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ was crossed before warnings were issued.”

Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, also drew a parallel between cell phones and cigarettes and told the committee scientists need to “do a better job of interpreting evidence of potential risk.”

On the other hand, Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News Sr. Health and Medical Editor, says, “The best science does not show a connection between cell phone use and cancer of any kind,” but Carpenter notes that earlier studies did not take long-term use into account.

So will society recognize a serious threat may – I say may – exist and consider that reducing cell phone use until more evidence is available might be prudent?

I repeat: Oh, hell, no.

A recent survey found that the majority of respondents said they could live without a microwave oven but that they couldn’t live without their cell phone.

Anything you feel you can’t live without that isn’t actually required for your continued physical existence is an addiction.

So, cell phone manufacturers and service providers, brace yourselves for the class-action lawsuits 20 years down the road when witnesses with what look like grapefruits growing out of their ears say, “Gee, nobody told me it was dangerous.”

About the Author: I regard historic research as a never-ending Easter egg hunt: You never know where you'll find a hidden treasure. Growing up with parents who told stories of family history probably had a lot to do with that. I realized early on that history is about lives already lived. I've met war veterans, early aviators, friends of Abraham Lincoln's in-laws, and a host of others who shared their histories with me – and it was never boring!

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9 Responses to “Cell Phones, the New Tobacco”

  1. Gerald,
    Interesting points, and I suspect that lawsuits are indeed in the offing. I have a good deal more syathy for tobacco users and cell phones users than do you, I think. Yes, there were warnings that go way back, but they were repeatedly denied and “debunked,” often by the medical establishment. If Big Tobacco spent millions mudying the water on the issue of tobacco’s harms, then it seems to me they cannot in good faith argue, “Well, SOMEBODY said it was bad, even if WE said they were liars. You were a fool to believe us.” Seems to me Big Tobacco has to take responsibility for their actions, too.

    I find the whole cell phone thing kind of odd anyway. I have one — have to for work — but between the interference, lousey reception, and dropped calls from sudden signal failure, even when I’m standing still in my living room, I wonder why we consider it progress to have exchanged almost flawless phone calls for a quality of service roughly what it was sixty years ago. But hey, there’s an up-side; now we can get crappy phone service everywhere!

    As to the cell phone manufacturers, the lesson they need to learn from BT is that if you spend millions to convince people there’s nothing wrong, then when it turns out something IS wrong, be prepared to spend billions of the back side.

    Which I guess is kind of what you were saying, isn’t it?

  2. mdula said:

    I liked the factoid about the cigarettes and the Civil War. Never though about that before. And idea when and where chewing tobacco became popular?

    As far as the cell-phones, virtue is its own reward. Although, I don’t think the cell companies will be able to use that argument in court. :)

  3. Frank, you’re right that Big Tobacco’s biggest sin was its misinformation campaign, but as you noted in your last couple paragraphs, that’s what cell phone manufacturers and providers need to be wary of. It may be that this will never become an issue, but if it does, boy howdy, there could be class actions suits that dwarf those against BT.

  4. Martin, I can’t speak for certain about chewing tobacco, but I suspect it was popularized in the Southern U.S. Chewing tobacco was believed to protect against pinworms. Some years ago I interviewed a 114-year-old man in Dixie who was still chewing tobacco because when he was about 7, Dr. George Rogers Clark Todd – Abraham Lincoln’s irascible brother-in-law – told the boy’s father to teach him to chew tobacco so he wouldn’t get pinworms.

  5. greg said:

    This is great history? The top story on a history blog? More like great propaganda!

    I learned about this site from World War II magazine and I have to say I am deeply disappointed

  6. Brent Layman said:

    Hi Greg! Look around the site more. I think you’ll find many other stories that may be of more interest to you.

    For me, I find the tobacco/cell phone comparison troubling. Cell phones, one can argue, provide value to our ability to communicate and work. Tobacco has none. Before we all throw our cell phones away, I think we’d do more for society by shutting down every fast food restaurant and reducing our intake of fatty foods.


  7. Marc Laplante said:

    I think this is a great article. I too think we have set the stage for a potentially devestating medical crisis in 20 or so years – there is hardly a 12+ year old who doesn’t have a cell phone, and doesn’t use almost continually.
    I am a long serving police officer, and we were issued the hand held traffic radar units in the early 1980s. The units were permanently “on”, and we left them in our laps while waiting for traffic. (they weighed about 3 times what the new ones do!) We joked about “frying our crotches”, so to speak… only to find that the units did emit harmful energy and several officers ended up with cancer atributed to the units use. There was no consideration at the time of the potential of a health risk. All new units – post 1990 – have “dead man” switches as a safety switch.
    So I am loathe to discount these cautionary articles, and think we should be shouting this from the roof tops.

  8. nathanaelgreene said:

    I think more people will be injured from inattentive driving while using their cell phones instead of keeping their attention to the road and crashing into one another on the highway rather than by some emf radiated by said device.

  9. CC said:

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