WHO Report On Phone Cancer Risk Won’t Impact M-Commerce. Not Even A Little

Written by Evan Schuman
June 1st, 2011

Some have questioned whether the announcement this week from the World Health Organization (WHO) that mobile devices might cause cancer could slow mobile adoption and thereby limit M-Commerce acceptance. The answer, for quite a few reasons, is no. Not even a little.

First, for those who haven’t read the details of the WHO report, this isn’t new information. The WHO panel simply reviewed existing material and concluded—as would anyone—that, yes, there is evidence that mobile devices, used extensively and in close contact with the head, can under the right conditions have an impact. Reports have said that for years. Second, the classification WHO used was Category 2, meaning possibly carcinogenic to humans. Know what else has been on that list for years? Coffee. How much of an impact has that had on Starbucks? (Starbucks offers coffee through cellphones. A double-whammy, WHO-wise.)

But all of that is not the key reason this information won’t go anywhere. Those things are all true for those who read the details of the WHO report. But consumers don’t read details of WHO reports. They do, however, absorb news and Web snippets. And they will hear that cellphones may be harmful, just like they heard that saturated fat, lack of exercise, sodas and watching too much television are bad for them. Seen a lot of those industries dying?

On the practical side, most of the risks can be sharply mitigated through wired headsets, speakerphones and simply making a point of keeping the things in airplane mode as often as possible.

Then there are the statistical realities, which don’t support or refute the mobile-cancer conclusion, but do call into question whether these research methods are of any scientific value at all.

As the Associated Press put it quite effectively: “Because cellphones are so popular, it may be impossible for experts to compare cellphone users who develop brain tumors with people who don’t use the devices. According to a survey last year, the number of cellphone subscribers worldwide has hit 5 billion, or nearly three-quarters of the global population. People’s cellphone habits have also changed dramatically since the first studies began years ago, and it’s unclear if the results of previous research would still apply today. Since many cancerous tumors take decades to develop, experts say it’s impossible to conclude cellphones have no long-term health risks. The studies conducted so far haven’t tracked people for longer than about a decade.”

That’s not saying whether mobile phones have a meaningful health risk. It’s saying that we have absolutely no way to tell right now. As any marketer has learned, when faced with conflicting, confusing or inconclusive data, most consumers opt to do nothing. In this instance, that means making no change to current behaviors.

So no, M-Commerce has nothing to fear from the WHO study. Splitting audiences between iPhone and Android and sloppy retail deployments? Ahhhh, that’s a very different issue.


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