Christopher Flower, DG of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association

The past month has seen the usual torrent of media stories highlighting a world beset by danger. From the food we eat to the cleaning products we use, new scientific "evidence" purports to uncover fresh risks that lie behind the labels of everyday products and brands.

Only last month there was the almost annual report linking deodorant to breast cancer. Although independent scientists and cancer charities queued up to pour cold water on the research, the story received national coverage in the press.

Bombarded with a barrage of exaggerated headlines, consumers could be forgiven for descending into panic and confusion. Fortunately they have not. Common sense has, so far, held fast.

For brands and retailers on the front line when it comes to reassuring consumers, monitoring the health of common sense is key to maintaining trust between brands, retailers and consumers.

That is why the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association embarked on a two-year project better to understand risk and consumers' perception of risk.

Polling commissioned by the CTPA found that, in general, people recognise the scale of the risks they take and those over which they have no control. For example, the respondents place smoking and taking illegal drugs as high-risk activities and they realise flying has a lower risk than driving.

Generally we are able to weigh up media reports that link the food we consume and the products we use every day with actual harmful effects - some 97% of us do not believe there is a high risk to our health when we read alarmist headlines.

Despite apocalyptic reports of a "toxic environment", we do not believe that as a nation our collective health faces greater threats than ever before - indeed, 76% polled correctly observed that in the past 50 years our health has improved.

In addition, 55% recognised the products named in the headlines as harmful, suggesting that many people understand the concept of "the dose makes the poison".

The data showed people's ability to weigh up and manage risk in their lives. This ability should be recognised and valued.

But there are some worrying signs. When we dug deeper into our polling there was a clear sense that younger people are growing up with a greater sense of fear. People in the 18 to 29-year-old age group are twice as likely as other groups to say that the health of the nation has, in fact, deteriorated.

There is a danger that an ongoing high volume of confusing messages will leave consumers feeling unable to exercise common sense. The result is greater pressure on regulators to provide absolute protection and, in turn, disproportionate action that seeks to win public confidence through over-reaching precautionary measures.

During the Sudan 1 food scare last year, for example, expert opinion quickly put the tiny amounts present in food into perspective. Our polling found that 40% of people were not at all afraid of developing cancer as a result of consuming an affected product and only 3% said they were very afraid. However, a huge product recall operation was launched. On its web site, Dr Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, suggested that "instead of informing consumers that the risk was purely hypothetical, the Food Standards Agency hyped it up".

It has been suggested that the FSA was particularly worried about losing a position of growing public trust. It attempted to show it could act in the name of precaution to restore public confidence - and yet, arguably, achieved the opposite.

We believe that retailers and manufacturers can work in partnership to create a climate in which consumers are able to make sense of information and trust in their own common sense.

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