Love your cell phone’s look? Hawaii wants giant warning labels on them

Love your cell phone’s look? Hawaii wants giant warning labels on them

In Hawaii, legislation is advancing that would put giant, non-removeable labels on phones. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

HONOLULU, February 23, 2014 – One of the unique cultural developments of the Information Age was the development of modern mobile phones. For many people, mobile phones have a special part in their daily lives, serving not only as a communications platform but a treasured personal status symbol. If you bought a special case to improve the appearance of your phone, you’re not the only one: as a testament to just how much people care about their phones, in 2012 ABI Research estimated that smartphone accessory revenues were valued at $20 billion in that year alone.

Some Hollywood actresses have customized their phones with expensive gemstones. For others with a truly discerning taste, there are even luxury phones made of platinum and gold and other precious metals, valued between $3,000 to $6,000 or more. So if you have an affinity for dynamic cell phone looks, beware: in Hawaii, a bill is currently advancing through the Legislature that would mandate giant, non-removeable warning labels sized not less than 30% of the total size of the phone’s back cover.

In its original text, Hawaii Senate Bill 2571 as introduced required that both new and refurbished phones sold and rented in Hawaii be labeled “This device emits electromagnetic radiation, exposure to which may cause brain cancer. Users, especially children and pregnant women, should keep this device away from the head and body.”

Just a few days ago on February 10, a joint hearing between the Hawaii Senate’s standing committees on Health and Technology and the Arts passed the measure with amendments, revising the giant, non-removeable label to read “To reduce exposure to radiation that may be hazardous to your health, please follow the enclosed product safety guidelines.”

This legislation is problematic for several reasons. First and foremost, the cell phone’s place as a luxury or status item will mean that people in Hawaii will likely detest mandatory labels that can’t be removed from their phones. In the case of phones where the label is affixed to a removeable battery case, most fashion-conscious people will simply detach the factory case and buy a replacement case. For phones that do not have removeable backs, Hawaii users will either cover them with fashion cases or resort to ordering their cell phones from out-of-state.

Economically, the mandate of non-removeable, giant labels on cell phones means manufacturers and distributers will have a higher compliance cost for Hawaii phones. As if shipping phones to the islands wasn’t already a cost factor, now there is the production complexity of adding labels to the phones. The end result? Hawaii phones will be more expensive. There is also the distinct possibility that Hawaii sales of phones could dip – lowering both economic activity and government revenues – if Hawaii residents seek to circumvent the law by buying phones out-of-state.

Another problem with Hawaii’s proposed labeling mandate is how it could potentially interfere with future mobile technology. Today’s phones may accommodate labels, but the direction that the technology is headed is to wearable phones or even flexible or transparent devices. If phones become fully integrated with watches, will Hawaii users have an unsightly warning label printed on the strap? (After all, the law requires the label to be 30% of the phone’s size.) If phones become transparent, will the mandatory labels interfere with the user experience? If phones become flexible, will the labels render the devices useless?

Most troublesome of all is the latest draft of SB2571 doesn’t have a “warning label” but rather a plea to simply read the instruction manual. According to the official committee report, everyone who testified on the measure submitted comments in opposition, yet the joint committee members still voted yes. In effect, Hawaii legislators are now saying that grown adults can’t be trusted to own phones and need to be reminded 24/7 with giant, non-removeable labels that they need to read the instruction book.

If this law passes, not only will it affect commerce in Hawaii, it will mark every Hawaii resident who travels off island with a labeled phone as someone who came from a nanny state.

If such a bill absolutely must be enacted into law, a better idea would be to simply give Hawaii cell phone purchasers informed consent when signing the contract for a new cell phone. Even if mobile devices do have dangerous health effects, one can’t uninvent mobile devices for the sheer fact that they are too useful and portable. Penalizing commerce, innovation and personal ownership with a giant label is simply bad legislation.

SB2571 must clear one more committee, the Senate committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection, before crossing over to the House. Anyone who loves their cell phones and uses them responsibly should oppose SB2571 and call upon the Hawaii State Legislature to defer this bill and let free markets and responsible adults regulate themselves.

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Danny de Gracia
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from