When it comes to health policy, the government is trying to turn "risk" into a four-letter word. Yes, risk may be daunting, but it is an inevitable reality. The current financial turmoil only proves stock economic theory: Reward doesn't come without risk. Just as investing money wisely requires evaluating potential costs, public health challenges also demand that we learn to embrace and properly manage risk rather than engage in an unrealistic effort to eliminate it altogether.
Unfortunately, our federal and local governments think it's their job not to help us manage risk but to get rid of it for us. Their nanny-state strategies have gone too far. Consider the New Jersey Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling's proposal to ban Brazilian waxing after just two cases where women who underwent the procedure suffered infections because of unsanitary practices. The proposal was thwarted only after women (and men?) cried out against what they saw as the product of state overreaction.
In a similar vein, the Wall Street Journal reported that 14 states have outlawed the unusual practice of fish pedicures, in which you dip your feet in a specially designed tank so that tiny fish can munch the dead skin off of them. Even if such a practice constitutes a health risk (which I doubt), it is trivial enough to leave under the personal purview of individuals.
The fact of the matter is that you can never escape risk. For example, all medications carry risks--even trusted, over-the-counter drugs like aspirin. But if items like aspirin, penicillin or many other everyday drugs were submitted for FDA approval today, the FDA--under its current risk-averse criteria--would likely reject the medicine for being too dangerous. It happens with potentially lifesaving drugs all the time, making the pharmaceutical industry less willing and less able to develop innovative drugs that could benefit countless consumers. In this way, hyper-vigilance in minimizing risk can even endanger those who are being "protected."
In passing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) last year, the federal government attempted to ban the "risk" posed by miniscule amounts of lead and phthalates in children's products. Though the law initially meant to fend off potential dangers--such as toys with elevated lead levels imported from China, which, by the way, were never found to have harmed any child--it is now being used to ban everything from children's books to kid-sized all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and motorcycles because they may contain lead. Because children's ATVs can no longer be sold, kids are now riding adult-sized ATVs that are too big and too powerful for them, putting them at real--rather than hypothetical--risk.
When I was 11, I learned how to ride a motorcycle on private property. I had the benefit of learning on a safe (but likely lead-laden) kid-sized Honda Sl-80. Later, I took a motorcycle safety course and always wore a helmet. But in Manhattan, I'm terrified of riding a bicycle on the streets or even in overcrowded Central Park. (Most of my friends would say just the opposite; they're scared of motorcycles and blasé about bike-riding in the city.) After all, these are personal choices that improve the quality of life for all of us.
The benefits of accepting certain risks are sometimes subtle. Not long ago, a New York State legislator proposed taxing videogames to fight obesity. At the time, critics of videogames were scared that they would inspire more children to lead sedentary lives--and for many years, they did. But after years of innovation, fueled by the demand for new and exciting games, Nintendo introduced the Wii, and later, the hugely popular exercise game Wii Fit. Thanks to our willingness to accept a certain amount of risk when it came to videogames, families are now bowling, running and doing yoga in their living rooms with the help of once-demonized videogames.
These are not radical concepts--merely ones we need to be reminded of from time to time. Not too long ago in Forbes, social scientist Arthur Brooks pointed out that moderate drinkers are not only happier and healthier than teetotalers and alcoholics, but they also tend to be more financially successful.
To me, this actually makes perfect sense. I believe that moderate drinkers have the ability to accept risk (unlike teetotalers) and manage it (as opposed to alcoholics). This is a discipline that they can deploy both at the bar and at the office. The ability to engage judiciously with risk in all facets of life may be a predictor of success--whether it's part of a career, daily routine or society in general.
We as a society need to redefine our relationship with risk. Rather than running away from it or trying to regulate it out of existence, we should learn how to evaluate it properly. Only then can we foster innovation--and enjoy greater freedom and success.