Ho ho woes: Wrap rage results in lacerations and bad tempers

Emergency department doctors report that thousands get medical attention annually for wounds related to packaging.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Dec. 22, 2008

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Images of colorfully wrapped presents under a Christmas tree are not supposed to trigger feelings of frustration and risks of possible injury. But trends in the packaging of many popular gifts have been diagnosed as the cause of this scenario -- what sometimes is called "wrap rage."

The real culprit, of course, is the "clamshell" or "oyster" packaging that encases many toys, electronics and other products. These hard plastic containers have emerged as a favorite of manufacturers and retailers because they protect items during shipping and prevent theft from store shelves, while still allowing shoppers to see what they are buying. The problem for consumers, though, is that these coverings are intensely difficult to remove -- often requiring tools, muscle and swearing. Sometimes the experience results in a trip to the hospital.


Numerous devices promise an easy way to snip through tough packaging. But unwrapping the tools themselves can be challenging.

"I've worked in the emergency department on Christmas day for six out of the last 10 years. We certainly see lacerations. That's the most common thing. But we also see punctures," said David Ross, DO, an emergency physician at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colo. He also is a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "That clamshell packaging is absolutely diabolical."

As a response to this widespread sentiment, some firms are taking steps toward change. In November, several announced projects to address this maddening holiday exercise. Notably, launched an initiative to make 19 products available without the plastic hard shell. Instead, the items will be shipped in a single, easier-to-open cardboard box.

"I think we've all experienced the frustration that sometimes occurs when you try to get a new toy or electronics product out of its package," said Jeff Bezos in a statement. He is Amazon's founder and CEO. "It will take many years, but our vision is to offer our entire catalog of products in frustration-free packaging."

A video posted to Amazon's Web site demonstrates why the company is moving in this direction. The video shows how, with revised packaging, parents can open a Fisher-Price Imaginext Adventures Pirate Ship in 44 seconds. Its previous packaging required 11 minutes and two seconds.

Others, including Microsoft, have announced plans to follow suit.

Another holiday stressor

But these actions are about more than sheer irritation. Statistics show that packaging can be a health hazard.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an average of 6,000 people a year end up in the emergency department for packaging-related injuries. Many more get minor wounds from using sharp implements to extricate products.

"You have to get a knife or scissors, and I have cut my hand on the plastic several times. You just cannot pull that stuff apart," said Ken Davis, MD, a family doctor in Conroe, Texas.

Even if blood is not drawn, wrap rage adds aggravation to the holiday season, a situation that has become a part of popular culture.

Since 2006, the magazine Consumer Reports has presented the most difficult-to-open products with an "oyster award." In addition, the otherwise placid Christian musician Sara Groves sings in her new song, "Toy Packaging," about resorting to dynamite after spending hours trying to set free a toy robot. Also, a mini-industry has emerged creating tools to ease the angst of this challenge.

"You cannot pull them apart with your nails or your teeth, and it takes away the fun when you get so angry at trying to get the thing open," said Toni Brayer, MD, a San Francisco internist who wrote about the issue on her blog (link).

Physicians are hopeful about the potential of easier-to-open packaging to cut the incidence of holiday tension as well as minor and major injuries.

"Anything that can reduce stress during the holidays is a good idea for both parents and kids," said Kenneth Haller, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

Many also said simpler packaging would be good for the environment. For example, the revised packaging shown in the Amazon video eliminates 36 inches of plastic-coated wire ties and 1,576.5 square inches of printed, corrugated package inserts.

"Not only does [the Amazon effort] have the potential to reduce temper tantrums, high blood pressure and the inappropriate use of language in front of children, it has a significant 'green' impact," said H. Garry Gardner, MD, a pediatrician at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He also chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics National Committee on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention.

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