After the death of a child, a coroner calls for a ban on popcorn. Is he right?

Any civilised society feels a collective wave of grief at the news of the death of a child. When that child has died from something as apparently innocuous as a piece of popcorn, our sense of tragedy is compounded. When we are in the presence of a family whose sense of loss we know to be overpowering, we can feel a correspondingly overwhelming urge to make things right again. To try to offer the bereaved the consolation that, while their own child may no longer be with them, at least no one else will suffer like they have.

This is the position that Dr Brian Farrell – the coroner who has called for the Irish Health and Safety Executive to ban popcorn from all pre-schools – found himself in. It is the position that lawmakers and politicians find themselves in, especially when the media or campaigners call for a response to such tragic events. “Something must be done,” the cry goes out. “This must never happen again.” It is a position that all too often leads to bad laws, wasted money and a breakdown of common sense.

We in the UK have seen this happen taken in the wake of a number of recent tragedies. We saw it after the deaths of four young people in a canoeing tragedy at Lyme Bay in 1993. The resulting licensing regime was so stringent that, according to lawyer Julian Fulbrook in his book Outdoor Activities, Negligence and the Law, it was only matched by those in four other industries: explosives, asbestos removal, off-shore oil production, and nuclear power. We saw it after Soham, when two girls were murdered by a school caretaker. At one point, the subsequent vetting system was going to require over nine million people to register on a database – a third of the working population. Both the adventure activities licensing system and the vetting bureaucracy are now set to be scaled back, in an admission that the official reactions at the time were excessive.

This is not to say that we should never introduce bans, or review procedures, or draw up new laws, or hold inquiries in the wake of tragic incidents. Coroners’ inquests, legal cases and reviews have in the past led to measures that have kept us safer. When deciding how best to respond, the key is to take a thoughtful, measured approach.

How do we do this? The answer is that we need to look beyond the emotions that arise in the aftermath of a single tragedy, and examine the wider picture. To think about how our proposals match up to the reality of the risks in children’s lives. To weigh up possible side-effects alongside a realistic assessment of impact. To think carefully about the costs, and to ask ourselves whether we are really making the best use of our time and money. In this instance, I doubt very much that the proposals being put forward by Dr Farrell would be considered to be proportionate or well thought-through.

To say all this is not to be callous, or heartless. In the rich nations, our children are arguably safer than at any time in history. Nonetheless our world is not entirely without danger. In our efforts to keep children reasonably safe, it is crucial that we learn the lessons of previous events that, while tragic, were also extremely rare. As I wrote in my book No Fear, “If we were always required to see the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, then we would always choose zero risk.”

Thanks to Alec Duncan at Childs Play Music for bringing this case to my attention.

11 responses to “After the death of a child, a coroner calls for a ban on popcorn. Is he right?

  1. This must have been terrible for the family. Something as simple as popcorn, which millions of children eat, resulting in such tragedy. Whilst the parents of this child may find it hard to take, Tim is right, our response needs to be proportionate and match up to the reality of risks in children’s lives. A world of zero risks is one that is sterile and devoid of fun. A thoughtful and measured approach is the way forward on this. The thing to think about is how many million children have safely consumed popcorn with little or no harm. Let’s make people more aware of the risks of choking, aware that small children are more likely to choke on some small food items, ensure their carers understand this and know how to respond should it occur….but please don’t ban popcorn……

  2. First up, I heartily agree with everything above. There’s another way we can see it’s really not a good idea though, by applying the same “logic” to similar incidents and seeing what happens. If we ban anything that has ever killed a child we’ll be left with /remarkably/ little. Any food that has ever provoked choking to death will be gone (well, looks like we’ll all be serving our children soup from now on, and I suppose it had better not be too hot…). Stairs? well, those will be gone so will we re-house all families in bungalows? Not only won’t the children be cycling anywhere, but we’ll not actually be able to transport them by car either. Baths are out, and so on. And on. (And I’m being quite conservative: no shortage of fatalities from trips and falls away from stairs, for example).

    Not only is a “zero risk” world sterile and devoid of fun, it is not actually a proposition that can be realised however much we try. Though we can take out all the fun and interest by trying, even while risks remain.

    Child risk is often mistakenly thought of in the same terms as child poverty: we won’t eliminate the problem but /anything/ we can do to reduce it is surely good? But risk doesn’t work that way because some degree of risk is not only inevitable but actually good for us too (because dealing with it /is/ inevitable). People /do/ realise that “safe enough” is actually a good pragmatic goal (they’ll drive in reasonable safety at 70 on a motorway rather than 50 (or slower) which they’re well aware may be safer) but while they’re happy to rationalise their own day to day behaviour that way it suddenly goes out the window when a headline tells us about an unusual tragedy.

  3. Far better to actually teach people first aid and the Heimlich Manoeuvre, surely?

  4. Peter, orielwen – thanks for the comments. Peter – your thoughts on the impossibility of the goal of zero risk echo my own.
    As an update, today’s Irish Examiner quotes Irene Gunning, Chief Executive of Early Childhood Ireland, as being in support of the coroner. In fact, ECI’s statement asks its member organisations to give ‘due consideration’ to the call for a ban – but it also highlights the benefits of paediatric first aid training. Thanks to Mick from Men in Childcare Ireland for these links.

  5. Tim – good article. Thanks for linking to Child’s Play Music, I appreciate it.

    To me this seems like a typical knee-jerk response – the “we have to be seen to be doing something” attitude to what is an extraordinarily rare occurrence. Choking on food is a not uncommon cause of injury death in young children (around about 2-3% of all injury deaths for 1-4 year olds according to some stats I’ve seen), but popcorn isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of food-choking hazards.

    And demonising popcorn isn’t going to change those stats one iota. If we want to reduce child mortality we should be concentrating on the big killers – motor vehicle and pedestrian deaths, drowning, other causes of asphyxia, and fires. And intentional killing of children – about 3-4 times more 1-4 year old children are intentionally killed than die from choking on food.

    Because those are the big killers there is a far greater potential for significant reductions in mortality than a relatively small cause of death like choking on food. We need to see the big picture – and popcorn isn’t even on the horizon.

  6. Yet another one of those knee-jerk reactions that plague this country. Sadly very often family members of tragic events are instantly given the “expert” status and the power to influence legislations.

    Like Tim and all the others who have commented, I am not a callous person and I feel for those who have lost someone in a tragic event, but banning everything that causes a death is not the answer.

  7. Orielwen – my understanding is that the heimlich maneuver, and CPR, both have failed in cases where children have choked on popcorn because it gets stuck (unlike, say, hot dogs). Personally I’m not planning to serve my toddler popcorn until he’s much older; I’m not sure it makes sense to serve it in preschools. Not that I’d go so far as to ban it.

  8. Pingback: When every parent’s worst nightmare comes true, how should we respond? | Rethinking Childhood

  9. Pingback: Hurt, blame, stupidity: when being a free-range parent does not go to plan | Rethinking Childhood

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