Thursday, June 13, 2013
For thy sake tobacco, I would do anything but die.
— Charles Lamb, (1775-1834) A farewell to Tobacco
Money talks. Frequently it finds its voice only when it is given to others. Consider Senators Mitch McConnell (R.KY) and Richard Burr (R.N.C.). Senator Burr, having received $534,000, has the distinction of being the recipient of more money from cigarette companies than any other member of Congress according to statistics compiled by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. His colleague (and the minority leader of the senate) Mitch McConnell has received $456,000. The money that cigarettes have paid the two men, as well as some of their colleagues, makes them understandably sensitive to the well-being of their donors and they have expressed their gratitude by letting Europe know that it can’t follow in Australia’s footsteps and impose restrictions on how its donors are portrayed to the public. But first, a bit of history.
In August 2012 the High Court of Australia issued an opinion that was exceedingly unfriendly to the package in which the cigarette is delivered. The court, depriving individual cigarettes of that which causes them to standout from their competitors, said all cigarettes had to be sold in uniform packages. Company logos can no longer be displayed on packages. All printing on the packages must use identical fonts and the package must have a dark brown background. To add insult to injury, the Australian Court said graphic health warnings have to cover 90% of the back of the package and 70% of the front. That ruling was especially distressing for the cigarette because it came just a few months after the United States Federal Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit had approved rules issued by the Food and Drug Administration that required graphic displays of warning images on cigarette packs. It also approved the rule that required graphic warnings to be placed on the top half of the front and back of each pack. In its opinion the court said: “We can envision many graphic warnings that would constitute factual disclosures . . . . A non-exhaustive list of some would include a picture or drawing of a nonsmoker’s and smoker’s lungs displayed side by side; a picture of a doctor looking at an x-ray of either a smoker’s cancerous lungs or some other part of the body presenting a smoking-related condition; a picture or drawing of the internal anatomy of a person suffering from a smoking-related medical condition; a picture or drawing of a person suffering from a smoking-related medical condition.” Australia plus the 6th Circuit created an air of gloom among cigarettes that no amount of smoke could dispel. The U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia dispelled it.
Ten days after the Australia Court ruled, the D.C. Court declined to approve the graphic warnings the FDA had required. Among one of the more catchy images it refused to approve was a picture of a man with cigarette smoke coming out of the tracheotomy hole in his throat. Saying that many “of the images chosen by FDA could be misinterpreted by consumers.” It suggested, as one example, that the tracheotomy image could be construed by the consumers as suggesting that receiving a tracheotomy “is a common consequence of smoking.”
Since two courts had arrived at differing conclusions it was widely assumed that the U.S. Supreme Court would weigh in and let the cigarette know which court got it right. It was not to be. On April 22, 2013, the Supreme Court let it be known it would not resolve the differences between the two Courts of Appeal. Although the domestic threat is at bay until the FDA comes up with new rules, the cigarette’s need for vigilance goes on and it is in Europe that it enlisted the aid of those it has supported.
In December 2012 the European Commission proposed significant restrictions on tobacco branding and flavoring. On the theory that for a cigarette to be fully appreciated, it should taste like tobacco and not like peppermint, it banned flavorings such as menthol. On the theory that cigarettes are harmful it said graphic warnings on the front of the package that now take up 30% of the package must be increased to 75%. The rules also require that the packages include the kinds of graphic warnings favored by the 6th Circuit and not favored by the D.C. circuit
On June 7, 2013, it was reported that Senators McConnell and Burr along with Senator Rand Paul (R. Ky.) and Kay Hagan (D. N.C.) had written to the European Union warning of dire consequences should the Union adopt the regulations on cigarette packaging it was proposing. The Senators said the proposed regulations would violate international trade rules and adversely affect trade relations with the United States. It’s good they explained. Otherwise one might have thought it had to do with all the money the cigarette companies pay them in order to preserve their friendship.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
— King James Bible, Matthew, 25:40
It’s not that he doesn’t like veterans. In fact in his remarks on Memorial Day when signing four bills passed by the Texas legislature he said: (invoking sober tones to deliver his message) “I don’t think there’s a deeper obligation that we have than to those who have sacrificed for our nation.” And saying that, he signed a bill that gives a total property tax exemption to the surviving spouse of someone killed in action and a partial property tax exemption to a partially disabled veteran living in a house given to the veteran by a charitable organization. (A third bill funds a “veteran entrepreneurship program” and a fourth gives World War II veterans with veteran license plates privileged parking benefits, a privilege with almost no fiscal impact given the ages of the benefits’ recipients.) Providing anyone relief from taxes is something every governor would enjoy doing and Governor Perry is no exception. And nothing is more important, as he makes clear in his Memorial Day remarks, than paying veterans the enormous debt we owe them. Of course the property tax relief only benefits those who own homes. Those unable to afford homes are given no benefit from the legislation the governor so proudly promoted.
There is one thing the governor refuses to do that would benefit far more veterans than the bills he signed on Memorial Day. That is something he is unwilling to do as he eloquently explained on April 1, 2013. Addressing reporters at the state capitol the governor said: “Seems to me April Fool’s day is the perfect day to discuss something as foolish as Medicaid expansion, and to remind everyone that Texas will not be held hostage by the Obama administration’s attempt to force us into the fool’s errand of adding more than a million Texans to a broken system.” The governor has wonderful health insurance as part of the many benefits he receives being governor including a salary of $150,000 and a pension of $92,000 a year for the years he served in the state legislature. If it were not for his philosophical objection to health care for the indigent he could, at very little cost to the state of Texas, permit Texas to participate in the Medicaid expansion. Participation would mean that more than 1.5 million Texans who now have no health insurance protection would be covered and get health insurance just like people in Texas who are not living at the poverty level. And not all of the 1.5 million are people who would simply be getting something that they, being poor, have no right to expect nor receive in this country where medical care is a privilege-not a right. Among the 1.5 million Texans who would benefit are 49,000 veterans who “sacrificed for our nation” to whom, as Mr. Perry so eloquently stated on Memorial Day, we have a deep obligation. He probably intended to say the obligation did not exist if it meant signing on to something as repugnant as health care for the poor.
By not signing on to Medicaid expansion for Texas residents, the governor is insuring that Texas will maintain its reputation that everything in Texas is bigger and better than everywhere else. Texas will maintain its status as the state with the highest number of people without medical insurance of any state in the union. El Paso Texas with a population of about 700,000 has more than 230,000 residents who have no health insurance. The University Medical Center in El Paso estimates that that number would be reduced by more than one-half were Texas to participate in the expansion of Medicaid.
On June 2, 2013, it was reported that Texas U.S. Representative Pete Gallegos and ten of his democratic colleagues in Texas’s Congressional delegation signed a letter to the Governor in which they asked him to expand Medicaid assistance in Texas. Echoing the governor’s Memorial Day remarks they observed: “Our servicemen and servicewomen put their lives on the line and sacrifice so much for our freedom. They deserve much more than lofty rhetoric alone.” The governor would almost certainly respond that giving relief from real estate taxes to some veterans who are lucky enough to own their own homes is the kind of relief that everyone can support. Other would say that given a choice between not having to pay real estate taxes in Texas and being able to obtain the kind of medical care that is available in all civilized countries except the United States, veterans would opt for adequate medical care for themselves and their families. So would the poor who did not serve in the armed forces but find themselves uninsured. Rep. Joaquin Castro, another signer of the letter said: “We know this can be done and hope Gov. Perry does the right thing.” So do 1.455,000 uninsured poor. They shouldn’t get their hopes up. They are in the noble position of being held hostage to the governor’s dislike of anything supported by President Obama.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Beware of punishing wrongfully.
— The Teaching for Merikare, c. 2135 B.C.
“We have to be darn careful not to put any children into the juvenile-justice system who don’t need intensive rehabilitation.” Those were the words spoken by Bill Sublette, chairman of the Florida Orange County School Board and a former state legislator. He got it right. Not every Florida school district has.
In early February 2010 6-year old Haley Shalansky, a student at Parkway Elementary in Port St. Lucie, Florida had a temper tantrum in class when asked to perform a task. She was sent to the principal’s office where she proceeded to throw some objects from the principal’s desk on the floor. The police were called and she was handcuffed and taken away from school in a police car. Her arms were so tiny that both arms were put in one handcuff. The next day she returned to school, misbehaved again and was sent by the school to a mental health facility. Haley’s parents were outraged not realizing that in Florida the strong arm of the law is a substitute for the paddle-wielding arm. (In 2008 Florida school officials administered corporal punishment to 7,185 students.
Sixteen-year old Kiera Wilomot is an exemplary student at Bartow High School in Polk County, Florida. April 22, 2013, at the urging of one of her fellow students while outside the school and before school had begun, she combined toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in an 8-ounce plastic bottle to see what would happen. The combination caused a small explosion that blew the cap off the bottle but caused no other damage or injury. An assistant principal witnessed the experiment, however, and promptly called someone known as the “school resource officer” who took Kiera into custody and turned her over to the Florida Assistant State Attorney. The school expelled Kiera for violating the school’s code of conduct and Tammy Glotfelty, a Florida Assistant State Attorney not wanting to be left out of the fun, charged Kiera as an adult with two felonies. One felony was for “possessing or discharging weapons or firearms on school property” and the second was “making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any destructive device.” Tammy can explain how an 8 ounce plastic bottle filled with a liquid is a firearm since that is why Tammy went to law school. On May 15, 2013, Polk County State Attorney Jerry Hill said that the charges against Kiera had been dismissed and that she would enter a diversion program, a face saving device for prosecutors and a complete waste of time for Kiera. This summer Kiera and her twin sister, Kayla, will be going to the U.S. Space Academy on full scholarships provided by Homer Hickam, a former International Space Station astronaut-trainer who thinks scientific curiosity should be rewarded rather than punished. For outrageous conduct by authorities, none of the foregoing compares with the plight of Kaitlyn Hunt of Vero Beach, Florida.
Kaitlyn is an 18-year old high school student. In November 2012 she began dating a 14-year old classmate. She and her classmate engaged in the sort of conduct that frequently accompanies the old and young when dating. What neither of the girls knew was that because of the age difference, each time they had physical contact Kaitlyn was committing a felony for which she could be prosecuted. The 14-year old’s parents, James and Laurie Smith, did not approve of the relationship and seeking revenge for what they perceived to be the seduction of their daughter, filed a complaint with the state attorney. The prosecuting attorney (a direct descendant of the 18th Century Puritans) charged Kaitlyn with two counts of “lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12-16 years of age.” If convicted Kaitlyn could face 15 years in prison and be required to register as a sex offender, a label that would haunt her for the rest of her life. Recognizing that this is a draconian result, the prosecutor offered her a plea bargain that is the kind of a bargain that makes a mockery of the word. If Kaitlyn pleads guilty to felony child abuse she may avoid being labeled a sex offender. The punishment the prosecutor would recommend to the judge would require Kaitlyn to undergo two years of house arrest plus another year of probation.
Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter was convicted of adultery by the puritans in her hometown. As punishment “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.” She was required to wear the gown whenever she was in public. Until Florida came along most would have thought it hard to top the punishment a judgmental group of puritans imposed on one of their own. The prosecuting attorney has put the Puritans to shame and brought shame to his office and the Florida judicial system. Too bad he was not born 300 years ago. He’d have fit in beautifully.