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Warning: Too many warnings dilute the value of being warned

The Santa Barbara Biltmore warns its guests against eating French fries or drinking out of leaded glassware. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The Santa Barbara Biltmore is swanky. An enclave of Spanish revival cottages tucked amongst lush vegetation and tiled fountains. Right on the Pacific Ocean, you can do a few laps in its enormous pool, then step onto a sandy beach.

A guest in one of the bungalows, say Fremont — they each have names — could wake up, feeling luxurious and pampered, wrap himself in a thick white robe and, musing whether to splurge on a room-service breakfast in the charming little courtyard, lazily flip open the menu and, among the freshly squeezed juices and sinful waffles, be confronted with:

         WARNING

Chemicals Known to the State of California to Cause Cancer or Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm May Be Present In Foods or Beverages Sold or Served Here.
Foods such as French fries, potato chips cooked in oil at high temperature can produce Proposition 65-listed chemicals such as acrylamide, which is known to the state to cause cancer. Broiling, grilling and barbecuing fish and meats can produce Proposition 65-listed chemicals such as benzo-a-pyrene, which is known to the State to cause cancer. Nearly all fish and seafood contain some amount of mercury and related compounds chemical known to the State of California to cause …

It goes on … and on. But you get the idea. The warning even points out that drinking water out of the fancy Biltmore glasses might be a problem, since “consuming food of beverages that have been kept or served in leaded crystal products made of leaded crystal will expose you to lead …”

OPINION

Welcome to California. The idea of the state being an asylum of health fanatics and lifestyle extremists might feel outdated, a 1970s cliche. Outdated because much of the country is imitating them now, with big business — hello, Whole Foods — catering to their whims.

But stereotypes often have a grain of truth, and occasionally, California manages to top itself. Last Wednesday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge issued a ruling in a 2010 lawsuit that large businesses serving coffee must post cancer warnings or face a hefty fine because roasted coffee contains trace amounts of the same acrylamide that caused the Biltmore to try to slap its guests’ hands away from the chips.

News stories on the coffee warnings tend to overlook they’ll merely be a single chirp in a vast chorus of Golden State alarm.

“The warnings are everywhere: parking lots, hardware stores, hospitals and just about any decent-sized business,” the Los Angeles Times noted in 2009, calling the law “a boon not only to environmental and public health advocates but to plaintiff lawyers, who have reaped significant settlements over chemicals that have never been proved to cause significant harm at the levels in which they are present. In 2008, for instance, a total of 199 lawsuits were settled, netting $14.6 million in attorney fees and just $4.6 million in civil penalties.”

So … good for lawyers, good no doubt for the sign-making industry. So what’s the harm? The harm is that warnings over dubious perils dilute the value of warnings. Cigarette kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, and each warning label is a chance to reach out to a nicotine addict and nudge them toward changing their ways. Coffee doesn’t kill anybody — in fact, studies show that it’s beneficial to health — and so tagging it for some trace amount of something just trains the public to ignore warnings.

You need to match the warning with the peril. The National Parks are good at this: visit Yellowstone, and stark signs advise you not to blunder into the boiling pools, because tourists do — 20 have died horrible scalding deaths. (In 2016, a 23-year-old from Oregon, leaning toward a thermal acidic pool to check how hot it was, fell in. By the time rescuers reached him, his body had entirely dissolved).

Yellowstone does not, however, label every tree, even though you could be injured blundering into on, or receive painful splinters drawing your hand across it.

There is one important warning that must be given before we move on. Warning: Bad laws have a way of sticking around —Proposition 65 was passed in 1986 by 63 percent of the voters. No one expects it to be repealed anytime soon.