Mobile phones – the 21st century cigarette?

San Francisco demands health warning as Apple iPhone 4 sales cause websites to crash

Apple protests

Are mobile phones set to go the way of cigarettes and be packaged with health warnings? That's the question raised by the decision of the city of San Francisco to demand that mobile phone retailers post radiation levels next to the handsets they sell.

The "specific absorption rate" measures how much energy a person absorbs per kilogram of body weight when using a handset. San Francisco supervisor Sophie Maxwell, the law’s chief sponsor, said: "This is about helping people make informed choices."

San Francisco is the first city in the States to demand the measure - just as it was in the vanguard of the anti-smoking movement in the 1990s.

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The city’s decision comes as scientists continue to argue over whether mobile phones can cause cancer, in much the same way as doctors were once undecided over the risk of smoking cigarettes.

However US researcher, Lloyd Morgan, said this week that the risk of brain cancer posed by mobile phones had been underestimated by at least 25 per cent in a safety study published earlier this year.

The industry-funded German Interphone study had concluded that the use of a mobile phone did not increase the risk of brain tumours for the 'average' user. But at a conference in Seoul, Morgan argued that Interphone had used old data, claiming 'average' use to be 2 to 2.5 hours a month, when that's now a more typical statistic for weekly usage.

"What we have discovered," said Morgan, "indicates there is going to be one hell of a brain tumour pandemic unless people are warned and encouraged to change current cell-phone use behaviours."

Morgan, senior research fellow at the US Environmental Health Trust, added: "I want to be clear that I don't believe all cell-phones need to be abandoned. But consumers can't read headlines from studies like this [the Interphone report] and think they are completely safe. I don't want people to wake up 10 years from now and say, "Oh my God, why weren't we told."

Morgan's campaign for greater truth about the risks of brain cancer is not deterring mobile phone purchases, certainly not at Apple.

The computer giant announced this week that such is the demand for its new iPhone 4 model that it caused websites in the UK and US to crash. The new phone, recently unveiled by Apple boss Steve Jobs, does not officially launch until June 24, but went on pre-sale on Tuesday and immediately sold out.

Its popularity has eclipsed that of the iPhone 3GS. When that model was launched in eight different countries in 2009 it sold a million units in five days. By contrast the iPhone 4 shifted 600,000 on day one in just five territories - US, UK, France, Germany and Japan.

In the UK the phone is being sold without contract through Apple's online store, which crashed under the weight of demand. In the US the phone was made available via AT&T - and its website crashed too. Eventually the American phone company suspended all orders.

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is a London-based freelance journalist who has also worked in marketing. His interests include archaeology and opera.