REGULATION: Protection Racket
By Staff Reports
Published: May 9, 2010
We live in the safest society in world history, Michael Crichton observed in State of Fear, yet Americans seem to go about their day in abject terror of minuscule threats. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in Washington's approach to child safety.
At the instigation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, federal bureaucrats at the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are studying whether to require the nation's hot-dog makers to redesign hot dogs to reduce the likelihood of choking. Choking is a serious hazard -- about 15,000 children receive medical attention each year because of it. But children choke on a wide range of items, from candy and gum to balloons and small change. In 2006, only 61 choking deaths were food-related, and hot dogs accounted for only 13 of those.
Any child death is tragic. Yet it's worth noting, as The Washington Times did not long ago, that children under age 10 eat almost 2 billion -- yes, 2 billion -- hot dogs a year. On a per-hot-dog basis, the odds of a child choking to death are 13 divided by 2 billion, which comes to . . . well, a microscopically small number. The odds that a person will be struck by lightning in any given year are about 4,000 times higher than the odds of a child choking to death on a hot dog. Given that context, redesigning hot dogs looks like a solution in search of a problem.
But it's not just hot dogs. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also has sounded the alarm about baby slings, which have enjoyed a recent surge in popularity because the close physical contact allows for greater parent-child bonding. In extremely rare instances, children can slip out of the slings or smother in them. The CPSC says slings are responsible for as many as 13 deaths -- in the past two decades.
The CPSC also has announced the recall of 1.2 million high chairs. No deaths have been attributed to the high chairs, but the agency says they do pose a fall hazard because screws securing the front legs of the chairs can loosen and fall out. Earlier this year the CPSC announced a recall of more than a half-million drop-side cribs because of "31 . . . incidents. In six of those incidents children were entrapped between the drop side and crib mattress. Three children suffered from bruises as a result of the entrapment."
Three children suffered bruises.
Of course it is possible to understate hazards that can endanger children, epecially young children. But if it is possible to understate the hazards, then it also is possible to overstate them. Context and perspective matter. If the regulatory state has reached a point at which it is warning about the dangers of patently safe products, then the public might reasonably wonder what, exactly, is being protected -- the health of young children, or the jobs of federal employees?