2011 - %3, June

New Warning Labels: Ruining Smokers' Days?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:58 AM EDT
New warning labels issued by the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday carry graphic depictions of the potential consequences of cigarette smoking.

On Tuesday morning, the Food and Drug Administration issued its new warning labels for cigarette packages. They're pretty gross:

Among the images to appear on cigarette packs are rotting and diseased teeth and gums and a man with a tracheotomy smoking.

Also included among the labels are: the corpse of a smoker, diseased lungs, and a mother holding her baby with smoke swirling around them. They include phrases like "Smoking can kill you" and "Cigarettes cause cancer" and feature graphic images to convey the dangers of tobacco, which is responsible for about 443,000 deaths in the U.S. a year.

Cigarette makers have until the fall of 2012 to introduce the new labels (I'm going to go ahead and bet you won't see them until right around then), which must cover the top half of every pack of cigarettes.

Now, if you're a smoker, I can see how this might bother you. You probably feel like you know the health risks of smoking, and you've made an informed decision. (In fact, that's the exact same argument the tobacco companies made for years in court as they successfully smacked down one cancer lawsuit after another.) Why should the FDA ruin your day by putting disgusting photos and disturbing warnings on your cigarette pack?

But here's the thing: it's not just you who is paying for the health consequences of your decision. If you live past 65, the taxpayers are footing the bill, just like we would for anyone else. So if the government isn't going to make a habit that is a massive public health risk illegal (and I think the drug war shows why that might be a bad idea), the least it can do is strongly discourage the habit. (The FDA is actually behind many first-world public health agencies in mandating really explicit anti-smoking labels on cigarette packs.)

I recently finished Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies, an awesome "biography" of cancer that everyone should read. I was especially struck by the contrast between Mukherjee's willingness to, if not forgive, at least understand the horrible mistakes that were made in early cancer treatment (e.g., radical mastectomies for everyone!) and his barely suppressed rage at the "range and depth of devastation" caused by cigarette smoking:

It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America—a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance's link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety-one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

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A Historical Perspective on Historical Perspective

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:56 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sullivan, the New Yorker's Nick Paumgarten provides some perspective on the latest dismal findings about American kids' knowledge of American history:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.” He pointed out that the first large-scale proficiency study—of Texas students, in 1915-16—demonstrated that many couldn’t tell Thomas Jefferson from Jefferson Davis or 1492 from 1776. A 1943 survey of seven thousand college freshmen found that, among other things, only six per cent of them could name the original thirteen colonies. “Appallingly ignorant,” the Times harrumphed, as it would again in the face of another dismal showing, in 1976.

....The NAEP results through more than four decades have been consistently mediocre, which may prove nothing except, as Wineburg wrote in 2004, “our amnesia of past ignorance.”

My mother attended a highly-regarded Los Angeles public school in the 40s. She was an honor student who loaded up on every advanced class on offer. But she told me once that in her entire high school career she wasn't required to write a single term paper. On the math front, her school not only didn't offer calculus (nobody did in the 40s) but didn't even offer what today we'd call pre-calculus. Advanced algebra and trig was as far as things went.

I don't know how her history education fared compared to mine in the 70s — or to a contemporary high school student's in the aughts. But I'm willing to bet it wasn't any better. Kids may not know a ton of history today, but neither do adults. And why should they? They didn't learn much history when they were in high school either. Nothing much has changed, and education most likely hasn't gone to hell in a handbasket. That's cheery news, isn't it?

Whither NY's Retrofit Plan?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:36 AM EDT

Gay marriage is getting all the attention in the waning hours of the New York legislature this week. But a revolutionary program to subsidize home energy improvements is also hanging in the lurch right now (along with rent regulations and a mixed martial arts bill, apparently).

The bill's description isn't exactly helpful, but basically, the state would front homeowners the money to retrofit their homes, to be repaid over the next 15 years or so using the money saved on utility bills. The Syracuse Post-Standard explains:

First, the state would establish a reservoir of funds to make small loans to property owners for retrofit projects. Where would the money come from? From commercial lenders. Economists point to a mountain of untapped investment capital looking for promising places to land. Utility bills typically have low default rates, and the likely returns on this type of investment are at least competitive with bond markets. Experts predict up to $5 billion in private capital could be attracted by this.
Here's the payback strategy: Each property owner's utility would add a small monthly surcharge to the customer’s bill — sufficient to repay the retrofit loan within a reasonable period of time, but no bigger than the monthly value of energy saved by the improvements. The utility customer’s monthly energy bill would stay the same — the money saved on energy costs would go toward repaying the loan. When the loan is repaid, the property owner would start banking all the energy savings.

The paper called it "ingenious" in an op-ed. The Buffalo News was similarly effusive. It's also a bipartisan effort; the Assembly version came from Democrat Kevin Cahill and Republican George D. Maziarz championed it in the Senate. But unless it somehow gets traction here in the final hours of the assembly, it too will die.

Chart of the Day: Who Gets Healthcare Claims Right?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:09 AM EDT

According to the AMA, commercial healthcare insurers are getting worse at processing claims quickly and accurately:

According to the AMA’s latest findings, commercial health insurers have an average claims-processing error rate of 19.3 percent, an increase of two percent compared last year. The increase in overall inaccuracy represents an extra 3.6 million in erroneous claims payments compared to last year, and added an estimated $1.5 billion in unnecessary administrative costs to the health system....Physicians received no payment at all from commercial health insurers on nearly 23 percent of claims they submitted.

And who did best on this measure of administrative efficiency? Medicare, with an accuracy rate of over 96%. The full results for a broad measure of claims accuracy are below.

Is the "Clean 15" Just as Toxic as the "Dirty Dozen"?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 9:35 AM EDT
Fumigants don't generally make it into the fruit you eat, but that hardly makes them "clean."

Recently, Environmental Working Group released its annual "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists of produce with the most and least pesticide residues. My reaction was: Well done, but what about farm workers? The EWG lists provide an invaluable tool to help consumers reduce pesticide exposure, but tell us nothing about the folks who grow and harvest the great bulk of food we consume.

Well, over on Pesticide Action Network's Ground Truth blog, researcher Karl Tupper shed some light on the murky question of farm worker exposure to toxic pesticides. Tupper stressed that pesticide residues pose a real threat to consumers. However, he adds "It’s the farmers, farm workers, and residents of rural communities who are really most at risk from pesticides, not consumers." Tupper explains:

While these folks are exposed to pesticides from food like the rest of us, they also must contend with pesticide fumes drifting out of fields, exposure from working directly with pesticides, and pesticide-coated dust and dirt tracked into their homes from the fields.

Tupper cross-referenced the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists against USDA numbers for total pesticides applied per acre of each item. He found that from the perspective of farm workers, the Clean Fifteen just aren't much cleaner than the Dirty Dozen.

Overall, the two lists don't look that different from the standpoint of pesticide use. The average pesticide use intensity for the list are quite similar: 26.2 lbs/acre for the Clean Fifteen and 29.8 lbs/acre for the Dirty Dozen.

Disturbingly, two Clean Fifteen items—sweet potatoes and mushrooms—land on top of Tupper's list of most pesticide-intensive crops. And the least pesticide-intensive crop by Tupper's calculations—spinach—took fifth place on EWG's Dirty Dozen. In short, what's clean for consumers is too often dirty for farm workers, and vice-versa. One main reason for the dirty-but-clean nature of so many vegetables that reach consumers' plates: widespread use of highly toxic fumigants. Tupper describes them like this:

They are very drift-prone and very toxic, and they are applied at very high rates compared to non-fumigant pesticides. But because they are applied to soil before crops are planted, and because they are so volatile and so reactive, they don't stick around on growing plants and they don't end up contaminating the food you buy at the market.

Is New Jersey's Honeymoon With Chris Christie Over?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 8:11 AM EDT

The state of New Jersey's love affair with Republican Governor Chris Christie seems to have come to an end.

A new poll by Quinnipiac University shows that Christie's approval rating is at its lowest ever among his state's citizens, with 44 percent supporting him and 47 percent disapproving. But the biggest loss for Christie came among women respondents, who have turned against governor: 54 percent disapprove of him, while 36 percent approve. This likely reflects his contentious education reform agenda, which involves weakening teachers' unions, cutting public school funding, and creating more charter schools.

"Gov. Christie is having a big problem with women, perhaps because they care more about schools and disapprove 60-34 percent of the way he's handling education," said Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll. "But voters like their 'Jersey guy' governor better as a person than they like his policies," Carroll added. "Men like him a lot; women, not so much."

As for Christie's national political prospects, a majority of voters (61 to 32 percent) don't think Christie would make a very good GOP vice presidential pick. Christie himself has repeatedly said he won't run for national office, but nonetheless he's been touted as a Republican politico who could enter the GOP presidential race late in the game and still compete with President Obama.

Christie's sinking approval ratings mirror those of fellow first-term GOP governors, including Florida's Rick Scott, Michigan's Rick Snyder, Wisconsin's Scott Walker, and Ohio's John Kasich. Swept into office on the tea party tide in the 2010 elections, these governors face not only public backlash for their hard-right policies—busting unions, slashing public health-care and social services—but, in some cases, recall campaigns demanding their early ouster.

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Did the Tea Party Convert David Mamet?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:01 AM EDT
David Mamet.

The new book out this month by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright David Mamet isn't winning any rave reviews from the mainstream press. No doubt that's because the MSM is dominated by a bunch of liberals, and Mamet, formerly a liberal himself, has come out as a Fox-News-watching right-winger. This weekend, his book was panned in the New York Times by Christopher Hitchens.

Like Mamet, Hitchens has moved far to the right of his liberal roots, but he still wasn't finding much to love about The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. He calls it "an extraordinarily irritating book." Reviewers, including Hitchens, have noted that Mamet credits such right-wing talk show hosts as Glenn Beck and Hugh Hewitt for putting him on the path to righteousness. But could it be possible that the tea party movement had something to do with his conservative conversion as well?

ACLU's "Kick-A-Jew Day" Case Edges Forward

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

In a 2005 South Park episode, Eric Cartman—the show's fat, whiny, spoiled antihero—sets off an anti-redhead movement in his Colorado elementary school. "Gingers," he says, are soulless, inferior beings that should be shunned. The episode's satiric take on bigotry was lost on some: in 2008, it inspired a 14-year-old British Columbia boy to launch a Facebook group declaring November 20, 2008, "Kick-a-Ginger Day," and sparking redhead bullying nationwide. A year later, ten North Maple Middle School students in Collier County, Florida, revised the holiday—they held "Kick-a-Jew Day" in its stead. At least one student was kicked and reported the attack to school authorities.

The incident has since sparked a lawsuit against the Collier County school district by the local chapter of the ACLU, which wants the district to reveal how it disciplined the students involved in the incident. Last week, that effort finally got a go-ahead.... with caveats. Collier County Judge Hugh Hayes denied the school district's motion to dismiss the suit, but also asked both sides to do a little rethinking and rewriting.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 21, 2011

Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Patrick Hendrickson, platoon leader, 1st Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, Iowa National Guard, takes cover in a wheat field behind a dirt mound as he moves his platoon into position prior to moving into Ruwquiean Village, Afghanistan on June 9. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Guffey 210th MPAD

Film Review: "Page One: Inside the New York Times"

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Page One: Inside the New York Times

MAGNOLIA PICTURES

88 minutes

Director Andrew Rossi opens his doc with shots of clunky presses spitting out broadsheets—footage that feels dated, and that's the point. He catches the Gray Lady at a moment when print is waning and the bosses are scrambling for ways—a paywall?—to survive the impending digital era. Rossi becomes "part of the furniture" at Times HQ as journos mull the value of Twitter, whether to publish WikiLeaks docs, and how best to cover the demise of newspapers. And while the film's big unanswered questions might leave viewers feeling untethered, the paper's personalities—from editors' goofy antics to reporters coaxing sources into going on the record—leave us believing that all the news that's fit to print isn't doomed quite yet. "Of course we will survive," insists media columnist David Carr, the film's smack-talking star. "You," he reminds his fellow journos, "are a bunch of tenacious motherfuckers!"