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  • FDA Issues New Rules for E-Cigarettes

    On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration unveiled broad new rules governing e-cigarettes, cigars, and hookahs—products that in recent years have exploded in popularity among young people and until now have been largely unregulated. Under the new rules, it will be illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under 18, and companies that manufacture e-cigarettes will be forced to register with the agency.

    In addition, vending machines will no longer be allowed to carry e-cigarettes. Free samples of the product will also be prohibited.

    The Obama administration's new rules follow similar age restrictions imposed by a growing number of states out of concern that e-cigarettes are more harmful than the companies producing them have let on. In December, a study conducted by Harvard researchers found that flavored e-cigarettes—with fruity, appealing offerings—were linked to a dangerous lung disease.

    "At last, the Food and Drug Administration will have basic authority to make science-based decisions that will protect our nation's youth and the public health from all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, cigars and hookah," president of the American Lung Association Harold Wimmer said in a statement on Thursday.

    The new rules are likely to be a controversial topic among public health experts, some of whom say e-cigarettes reduce rates of traditional smoking, which they believe to be more dangerous. Just last month, Britain's Royal College of Physicians concluded that the product was a healthier alternative to smoking.


  • Donald Trump Will Soon Get Classified Briefings. How Worried Should We Be?

    Donald Trump may not have the keys to the nuclear arsenal quite yet, but his all-but-guaranteed nomination, sealed with a landslide victory in the Indiana Republican primary on Tuesday, means the intelligence community must soon start briefing the presumptive GOP nominee and giving him access to classified security information.

    "We have already established a plan for briefing both candidates when they are named," said James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor last week. "We already have a team set up to do that and a designated lead." While Trump and Hillary Clinton are nearly certain to become their parties' nominees, Clapper's office confirmed that intelligence briefings would not begin until the Republican and Democratic candidates are formally nominated in July.

    Candidates first started receiving intelligence briefings during the 1952 election, on the orders of President Harry Truman, and the practice has continued during every presidential election since. Once conducted by the CIA, the briefings are now handled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, which was established in 2005. The ODNI wouldn't provide any other details about the process, including who carries out the briefings or what level of classified material the candidates are allowed to hear about. Clapper said during the breakfast that the briefing team tries to ensure that each candidate receives the same information.

    The briefings are supposed to give the next potential commander in chief the best possible national security outlook. But there's a balancing act between the information the candidates need to receive and the amount of material the outgoing president, who has ultimate control over the information in the briefings, is willing to reveal. In Getting to Know the President, a CIA-published book about the history of presidential candidate briefings, former CIA Inspector General John Helgerson described how the Clinton administration restricted information given to then-Gov. George W. Bush. "Don't tell him anything sensitive," Sandy Berger, the national security adviser at the time, reportedly told CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin. Helgerson wrote that this was the case for "a great many transitions, with the outgoing administration not sure which candidate would accede to office and thus very protective of sensitive and classified information."

    That may be especially true now that Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee. Trump has displayed both an ignorance of military and foreign affairs—at one debate he appeared to have no idea what the nuclear triad was—and a willingness to endorse positions wildly out of the foreign policy mainstream, including resuming waterboarding and targeting the families of terrorist suspects. He has also floated the idea of withdrawing from NATO and ending other longtime alliances unless our allies reimburse the United States for military costs. Sitting officials, including the director of the CIA and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have publicly spoken out against Trump's proposed policies, and a recent Huffington Post article described panic among current and former military officers at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

    Between that and Trump's penchant for speaking off the cuff, President Barack Obama and his national security team may think long and hard about giving the presumptive GOP nominee access to anything but the bare minimum. As a former senior intelligence official told the Daily Beast, "It's not an unreasonable concern that he'll talk publicly about what's supposed to stay in that room."

  • The Time Donald Trump Tried to Be Vladimir Putin's BFF

    The presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump sat down with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday to talk about his position on various issues, and when the discussion turned to Russia, the real estate mogul vowed to get tough with President Vladimir Putin. Referring to the Russian leader's recent provocations, Trump said, "I would call him and say, 'Don't do it again.'" But when Blitzer asked Trump whether he had ever met Putin personally, Trump replied with an odd dodge: "I don't want to say."

    Why not? But whether or not Trump has met with Putin, we know that in 2013, Trump tried to befriend the Russian autocrat and have him attend a Trump event. We know this because Trump tweeted about it.

    That year, the Miss Universe pageant, which Trump then co-owned with NBC, was being held in Moscow. (Staging the show in Russia was controversial, given the nation's recently passed anti-gay laws.) And Trump wanted Putin there. Looking to attract the Russian leader, he issued a ingratiating tweet:

    Months later, without an answer, Trump acknowledged that Putin had yet to RSVP, but he insisted Putin was a fan of the pageant: "I know for a fact that he wants very much to come, but we'll have to see. We haven't heard yet, but we have invited him."

    Putin never showed. Perhaps he wasn't eager to become Trump's new best friend. Trump, though, didn't take the Putin snub too hard. Last year, he was delighted to share his admiration for Putin.

  • What Bernie Gets Wrong About the Soda Tax

    An estimated 27,500 people in Los Angeles, 20,000 in Seattle, and 18,500 in the Bronx: Bernie Sanders is sparking some of the biggest crowds in primary history. For millions across the country, his message is clearly resonating. It's refreshing to hear someone running for the country's highest office finally articulate (without any prodding!) core progressive policies: from taking on Wall Street to reforming campaign finance to making college affordable—the list goes on. So it stunned many progressives to hear Sanders attack Philadelphia's plan to tax sugary drinks; he called soda taxes regressive and came out swinging.

    Like health advocates across the country, I think Sanders got it wrong: These taxes in fact reflect the progressive values he holds dear.

    As a resident of Berkeley, California, the first city in the United States that has passed a tax of this kind, and as someone who has been working to sound the alarm on the epidemic of diet-related illnesses for years, I have had a ringside seat at the battle against Big Soda. And I think that if Sanders had firsthand knowledge of the fight, he too might be moved to see these taxes differently.

    Sanders claims soda taxes will "disproportionately affect low-income and middle-class Americans." But here in Berkeley, as with other places soda taxes are being proposed, it's the very communities Sanders says he's trying to protect that have been at the beating heart of the campaigns.

    When Berkeley took on the soda tax, the campaign connected people from all walks of life. The NAACP, Latinos Unidos, the entire school board, every single city council member, and dozens of other groups were all united in their support. Across race, class, and age, the community came together against a deluge of Big Soda money to defend a strategy to help take on one of the biggest public health crises of our time.

    Supporters of these taxes understand they are "regressive" only in the most simplistic sense. As with any tax that could lead to higher prices to consumers, from cigarettes to carbon, one could allege they make the poor pay disproportionately more. In Philadelphia, the 3 cent per fluid ounce excise tax on sugary drinks levied on distributors could raise a $0.99 12-ounce Coke to $1.35 if the tax were passed on entirely to consumers. For a $7.25 hourly minimum-wage worker, that price hike would therefore be a bigger relative burden than for, say, the CEO of Coca-Cola who made roughly $7,000 an hour last year.

    But it's wrong to leap from that simplistic calculation to call these taxes an encumbrance on the poor. It's not like this tax is for something people have to buy—a tax, for instance, on water or fruits and vegetables. No one needs Coca-Cola to survive and, in fact, drinking soda is a key driver of serious illness. Indeed, a study of the effect of a soda tax in Philly found that the potential price increase could reduce soda consumption, preventing 2,280 new cases of diabetes and 36,000 new cases of obesity every year. Over the course of a decade, the levy could save the city $200 million in averted health care costs. That's yuge! as Sanders would say.

    Progressives have long understood that one of the ways to take on predatory industries whose products hurt the most vulnerable among us is through consumption taxes—something Sanders understands when he speaks in favor of taxing cigarettes.

    So maybe Sanders just isn't hip to the evidence about the harm caused by sugary drinks. And I get it: Many still don't perceive soda as being as troubling as tobacco. But the science is in. Long-term, peer-reviewed studies have clearly demonstrated the links between sugary drinks and a wide range of illnesses, from diabetes to heart and liver disease to weight gain—not to mention the damage to dental health. Drinking just one or two sugary drinks a day can increase the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes by 26 percent. And reducing soda consumption is increasingly seen as the best first step to halting weight gain. (I experienced this myself when I cut out sugar-sweetened beverages as a cash-strapped grad student. No longer able to afford my habit of multiple Snapple drinks a day, I went cold turkey and dropped 15 pounds. Save for my two pregnancies, I have never gained them back.)

    We also know the burden of these diet-related diseases is not evenly experienced by race and class—and that's putting it mildly. I bet the CEO of Coca-Cola doesn't live in a community where 1 in 2 residents either have diabetes or are on the way to being diagnosed with it, as is the case in many low-income communities nationwide. Consider this shocking fact: According to the American Diabetes Association, African Americans and Latinos are 70 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than their white peers. In other words, the potential benefits of these taxes will be greater for the communities whose health has been most undermined by soda.

    The most powerful moments of the Berkeley versus Big Soda campaign were hearing community members describe their direct experience with the costs of diabetes: from forfeited wages because of days spent caring for parents or kids to lifelong health problems including heart disease, comas, infertility, vision loss, insulin replacement, even amputations. (Yes, amputations.) At least 73,000 lower-limb amputations were performed nationwide in 2010 on people with diagnosed diabetes. The economic toll of this rising epidemic cannot be stressed enough.

    These taxes are beneficial—and reflect progressive values—in another way: Revenues reaped can disproportionately benefit a community's most at-risk residents. Here in Berkeley, our tax on distributors (one penny per fluid ounce) is on track to bring in $1.5 million annually, which will be used to support health education and diabetes prevention. In Philly, the mayor would use the revenue to fund universal pre-K.

    The other charge Sanders makes against these taxes is that they are job killers, leading to "the loss of thousands of good-paying jobs." There is no evidence this would be the case. Here in Berkeley, where the soda tax was implemented March 1, 2015, there's been no indication of jobs lost.

    It's perplexing to me that Sanders would embrace an anti-soda-tax stance. His particular volleys—"It's a jobs' killer!" "It's regressive"—are straight from the pages of the beverage industry's PR playbook. And they echo tobacco industry misinformation that came before them. When cigarette taxes were first proposed, the industry cried foul, too, claiming the poorest people would be most burdened by rising costs, that jobs would be lost. Instead, we've seen one of the most positive public health success stories of a generation as smoking rates have plummeted.

    Sanders argues that instead of soda taxes we should tax corporations more. Today's effective corporate tax rate, he notes, is just 22.8 percent, down from 31.7 during the Reagan years and resulting in the loss of an estimated $166 billion every year. What progressive would disagree with Sanders here? But I'm not sure why Sanders presents these positions as either/or. Soda taxes are just one tool in progressive toolbox to take on corporate power and address the devastating epidemic of diet-related illnesses.

    And what a tool they can be. The soda industry knows this. That's why its trade group, the American Beverage Association, has spent an estimated $64.6 million since 2009 fighting soda taxes, according to analysis from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (That doesn't even include this year's lobbying spend in California's capital to fight a proposed statewide tax and more going to undermine fledgling efforts in Oakland, California, Philadelphia, and beyond). In Berkeley, a city of 116,000 people, the trade group spent $2.4 million in an onslaught of negative ads, misinformation, and paid supporters. Big Soda even got in-kind donations from Landmark Theaters to play anti-tax ads before movies in local theaters.

    Despite this big spend and thanks to an incredible community effort—the kind of people power I would have thought Sanders would love—we won, and we won big. (Even San Francisco—where the industry outspent the community 31 to 1, shelling out $9.2 million to oppose the tax—55.6 percent of voters supported it, with the vote only failing because it fell short of the two-thirds needed there.)

    I wonder whether things would be different if Sanders had been at the Berkeley versus Big Soda headquarters on election night. There, under the bare bulbs of a cavernous room on the main strip of downtown Berkeley, hundreds stood shoulder to shoulder watching as the election results rolled in—and cheering and hugging as the number of precincts crept up.

    We stood, a community united, listening to what this campaign had meant to the people at the heart of it: A pediatric dentist recounted how the campaign had transformed her despair at the deterioration of dental health into determined action. A young Latino organizer whose aunt had been hospitalized that very evening from complications from diabetes, shared that the effort had given him a tangible way to use his agony about the illness ravishing his family to make a difference. An African American reverend shared how the grief of losing his 29-year-old son to diabetes propelled him to work tirelessly for the campaign; no other father should lose a son to this disease, he said.

    If Sanders had been at the Berkeley soda tax HQ on election night, listening to these voices and more like them, I wonder if he, too, would have been brought to tears—and, whether he, too, would have joined in the thunderous applause as the final results came in. Despite Big Soda's big spending, the people had triumphed. The final tally: 76.2 percent in favor of the tax.

    Just like the city had done in setting policy precedent by being the first to voluntarily desegregate its schools, and to provide curbside recycling, to create curb-cuts for wheelchair accessibility, now Berkeley had passed the first tax on sugary drinks in the United States. There will be more.

    Communities across the country are taking up similar taxes, from Philadelphia to Boulder, Colorado, to Oakland. In response, Big Soda will redouble its efforts to confuse the public, distort the science and undermine the credibility of advocates—and they'll undoubtedly take on the dual mantras Sanders echoed. They have nearly bottomless pockets to do so. (Coca-Cola alone spent $3.5 billion in marketing in 2014.) But Berkeley has shown that strong coalitions can take on even the world's largest corporate behemoths. It's a David versus Goliath battle that any progressive should love.

  • Kids to Admins: Charter Schools Have Got to Go

    In nearly 75 cities across the country, students, parents, and teachers marched at their public schools on Wednesday, protesting inadequate funding and charter school takeover, issues that especially affect black and Latino students in urban areas.

    The organization Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools is behind the "walk in" demonstrations, and it's made up of large-scale organizations, such as teachers unions, and local community groups. The walk-ins began last spring and have doubled in size since February.

    The alliance's executive director, Keron Blair, said that when charter schools replace public schools, parents lose their ability to vote on school board members—something, he argues, that hurts society at large. "We have to invest in public education if we want to fortify our democratic society," he said. "The two go hand in hand."

    Charter schools have exploded in popularity since the 1990s; data shows that today nearly 5 percent of all public school students attend one. Charters receive funding that many educators feel should go only toward traditional public schools.

    "People are seeing and hearing and saying, 'We want to walk in,'" Blair said. "Resources are being pulled out of the public sector and privatized…The very people they're supposed to help have no say," Blair said.

    Although the general theme of the walk-ins revolved around charter school takeovers, the demonstrations also allowed students and parents to voice their own local issues. Educators and parents from Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California, protested an enrollment policy that has public schools and charters grouped together when parents sign up their kids for school; some parents and educators are concerned that the policy favors charter schools. Organizers from San Francisco Unified School District protested the rising cost of living that has pushed teachers out of a city where a two-bedroom apartment typically runs upward of $2,000 per month.

    "The affordability crisis in San Francisco is raging out of control and turnover is happening at a breakneck pace," said Matthew Hardy, the communications manager for Unified Educators of San Francisco. "This is pushing too many educators out of the city and out of the school system."

    For Detroit, a city continually plagued by public-education budget battles, Wednesday's walk-in came on the tail end of more teacher "sick outs" earlier this week. Since it is illegal to strike in Michigan, frustrated educators have been using their sick days to protest unpaid work days. Education advocacy groups like 482 Forward, a citywide education organizing network, used the national momentum against charters to present a list of demands that include manageable class sizes and more multicultural curricula. Nearly 84 percent of the public school student population in Detroit is African American.

    "There's not a lot in the curriculum where kids can self-identify," said Wytrice Harris, a parent and school activist. "It doesn't reflect the lives that they see every day."

    Keron Blair of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools said small changes are being seen across the country and that the organization will plan more walk-ins for the fall of the coming school year. 

  • John Kasich Drops Out of Presidential Race

    John Kasich announced Wednesday evening that he was dropping out of the presidential race, leaving Donald Trump as the sole Republican contender and almost-certain nominee. Kasich's announcement comes less than 24 hours after Trump's sweeping Indiana primary victory sent shock waves through the political world and prompted Ted Cruz to abandon the race. Following Cruz's announcement, GOP chairman Reince Priebus called Trump the presumptive nominee on Twitter and encouraged Republicans to rally behind the real estate mogul.

    Unlike Cruz, Kasich never had much of a shot at becoming the GOP's nominee. On the campaign trail, he touted positions—expanding Medicaid, supporting a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, and more—that seemed removed from the typical attitudes of the GOP electorate. The Ohio governor won only one state primary: his own. But with Cruz out of the race, Kasich represented the GOP's last, long-shot hope for somehow stopping Trump from winning the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

    Shortly after Cruz dropped out Tuesday night, Kasich's campaign assured voters he would be staying in the game. "It's up to us to stop Trump and unify our party in time to defeat Hillary Clinton," Kasich's campaign manager, Ben Hansen, wrote in an email to supporters.

    But Wednesday evening, during a speech in Columbus, Ohio, Kasich changed course. He opened by thanking his family, his wife, and his campaign staff and volunteers. He recounted some of the interactions with voters he had on the campaign trail: "The people of our country changed me with the stories of their lives," Kasich said. He ended on a somber note: "As I suspend my campaign today, I have renewed faith, deeper faith, that the Lord will show me the way forward and fulfill the purpose of my life."

  • Foreign-Born Citizens in Louisiana Need Extra Paperwork to Vote

    The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Louisiana's top elections officials Wednesday, accusing the state of violating the rights of naturalized citizens by requiring proof of citizenship before they can fully register to vote.

    The suit, filed in the US District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana along with the Fair Elections Legal Network, asks the court to rule the practice, which was established in an 1874 state law, unconstitutional and issue a preliminary injunction against state and local officials from enforcing the provision while the suit moves forward.

    "By enforcing this outdated requirement, Louisiana is saying that naturalized citizens are second-class citizens and cannot be trusted," SPLC Deputy Legal Director Naomi Tsu said in a statement. "These potential voters have already sworn that they are citizens as part of the registration process. The state is blocking eligible voters from the ballot box and ultimately weakening democracy."

    In order to register to vote in Louisiana, a person must be at least 16 years old (but at least 18 to cast a ballot), not be a felon, not have a suspension of voting rights related to a mental condition, and reside in the state and parish in which he or she is trying to vote. State registration forms require new registrants to attest to the fact that they're citizens. This can be done in person or online. Naturalized citizens—immigrants who have completed all the legal requirements and are considered full citizens—theoretically should not be treated any differently under the law from anyone else.

    But according to the lawsuit, foreign-born citizens who register to vote are contacted within a short period of time and told they need to provide additional documentation to prove they're actual citizens, a requirement that does not appear on most state or online registration forms. According to VAYLA New Orleans, a community support group that helps people register to vote, many naturalized citizens don't have a passport, certificate of naturalization of the parent, certificate of citizenship, or certificate of repatriation, and without those documents could be barred from voting.

    Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

    The plaintiffs in the case are three naturalized citizens who had problems registering to vote. One plaintiff was unable to vote at all in both the 2015 gubernatorial election and the 2016 presidential primary. If the suit is successful, state and local elections officials would be stopped from enforcing the rule, and it might be struck down permanently. The SPLC's statement on the case notes that there are 72,250 naturalized citizens in Louisiana.

    "Such laws targeting foreign-born, naturalized voters were once more common, but Louisiana's law is the only one of its kind still enforced in the United States," the suit states. "Similar laws were long ago struck down as discriminatory."

  • Clinton Releases a Brutal Anti-Trump Ad

    With Ted Cruz and John Kasich out of the race, Donald Trump has become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton's campaign wasted no time switching to general election mode, releasing a web video criticizing Trump. But Clinton didn't do it in her own words; the ad is a compilation of unkind things Trump's fellow Republicans have said about him during the party's nomination campaign.

    It's harsh. Mitt Romney calls Trump a misogynist, Marco Rubio claims he's the most "vulgar person to ever aspire to the presidency," and Jeb Bush says Trump needs therapy.

    It looks like the Clinton campaign isn't going to let any of the #NeverTrump Republicans forget that stance anytime soon.

    Update: 9:30 pm ET, May 4, 2016: Hillary has released a second ad that is even spicier than the first.

  • #NeverTrump Is Having a Collective Meltdown on Twitter

    The #NeverTrump movement is all but dead. Following a drubbing of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Indiana primary on Tuesday night, Donald Trump rose from a GOP front-runner to a GOP damn-near-certain nominee. And then Cruz and Kasich decided to drop out of the race.

    That leaves #NeverTrumpers in a bind. Some have concluded that presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would be a better choice than Trump in November. Others have thrown their hands up in disgust. And a growing camp has come around to the idea that, well, #MaybeTrump.

    Here's what some prominent #NeverTrump people had to say on Twitter in the aftermath of the Indiana bloodbath.

    More than a few #NeverTrump people have grown even more dedicated to the cause since the Indiana vote. The number of signatures on has eclipsed 30,000 as of early Wednesday afternoon. More than 1,000 of those came after last night's election results.

  • A Massive Wildfire in Canada Just Forced an Entire City to Be Evacuated

    A massive wildfire has devastated the oil town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, where overnight on Tuesday, the city's entire population of 80,000 residents were ordered to evacuate. The wildfire, which started over the weekend, has already burned more than 74,000 acres. In one neighborhood, 80 percent of the homes were reported destroyed.

    The Toronto Star reports officials are seeking help form the Canadian military to assist in controlling the crisis, with high temperatures and clouds of smoke continuing to envelop the region. As firefighters struggled to contain the fire on Wednesday, fire chief Darby Allen indicated that powerful winds still threatened to exacerbate the situation.

    "I would say it's been the worst day of my career," Allen told CBC Ottawa. "The people here are devastated, everyone's devastated, the community is going to be devastated. This is going to take us awhile to come back from, but we'll come back."

    "It's a nasty, ugly fire and it is not showing any forgiveness," he added.

    On social media, residents fleeing the area reported scenes of chaos:

    On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered to provide Fort McMurray with federal assistance, pledging to support residents through the crisis.

    "I really do want to highlight that Canada is a country where we look out for our neighbors and we are there for each other in difficult times," Trudeau said. "And certainly in Fort McMurray, the difficult times they are going through right now is something that we are going to unite around."

    As Climate Central explains, the Fort McMurray fire is "the latest in a lengthening lineage of early wildfires in the northern reaches of the globe that are indicative of a changing climate. As the planet continues to warm, these types of fires will likely only become more common and intense as spring snowpack disappears and temperatures warm."

    Click below to watch Climate Desk's video explaining the link between climate change and wildfires: