“On a supposed right to lie [to the public] from benevolent motives” Communicating health risks to the public

There are three main categories of rationale for withholding information or telling lies: if overwhelming harm can only be averted through deceit; complete triviality such that it is irrelevant whether the truth is told; a duty to protect the interests of others. Public health authorities are frequently having to form judgements about the public interest, whether to release information or issue warnings. In June 1992, routine surveillance detected patulin levels (a known carcinogen) in samples of apple juice exceeding safety threshold. Remedial actions were promptly taken and it was planned to subsequently publish the information in the routine way. However, the media portrayed the handling of the problem as a conspiracy and there was a short term reduction in juice sales. In October 1995, the UK Committee on Safety of Medicines issued a warning about certain brands of the contraceptive pill, based on the interim results of three unpublished studies. The increased risk of thromboembolism was small, but the resulting scare led to an increase in unwanted pregnancies. The handling of the B.S.E. crisis in the U.K. also led to accusations of incompetence or conspiracy. Public health authorities have to handle uncertainty and frequently have to form judgements for public safety on the basis of evidence of poor quantity and quality. Their task is not helped by the sometimes conflicting agenda of scientists and media. The public also have differing perceptions and interpretations of risk. The series of scares and crises are having a detrimental effect on public confidence in public health authorities
Keywords communication  public  public health  risks  warnings
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Reprint years 2004
DOI 10.1023/A:1026585019832
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