Thursday, July 27, 2017

Old enough to vote, old enough to choose not to smoke -- July 27, 2017 column


Nearly half a century ago, Americans decided 18-year-olds were responsible adults capable not only of fighting our wars but also of voting.

In the 21st century, though, some believe these responsible adults need government protection from, of all things, tobacco. 

A trend has spread from community to community to raise the age for buying tobacco and electronic cigarettes to 21. New Jersey just became the third state to enact a law, after Hawaii and California.

The measures are well intentioned and seemingly sensible. Nine in 10 smokers start before age 18, and most states, including Virginia, allow young people 18 to buy tobacco products. No one wants young people who believe they’ll live forever to take up a habit likely to ruin their health and shorten their lives.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill July 21 that will raise the state’s smoking age from 19 to 21 in November. It will give young people “more time to develop a maturity and better understanding” of the dangers of smoking, he said.
But, really, can anyone in 2017 reach the age of majority – 18 – and not know nicotine is addictive and smoking kills?
The Maine legislature passed a 21 purchase age bill this month, but Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it.
If 18-year-olds can be sent to war, they’re “mature enough to make their own decision” and should be allowed to smoke, LePage, a Republican, said in a radio interview.
LePage’s tenure has been fraught with controversy stemming from his racially insensitive and profane outbursts, but this time he’s onto something.
The slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” helped pass the 26th Amendment in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote. Using the same rationale, a couple dozen states soon lowered the drinking age to 18.
An increase in deadly crashes involving young drunk drivers followed, and states started reversing course. Then, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill linking loss of 10 percent of federal highway funds to states that did not adopt 21 as the drinking age. All states complied.
Tobacco is the latest front in the war to save “kids” from risky behavior. But someone 18 is legally an adult who can sign contracts, get married and be sent to an adult prison. People under 21 serve in combat every day.
Raising the age to buy tobacco is a solution to a problem that’s naturally receding. Smoking rates for teens and adults have been cut in half since the first surgeon general’s report in 1964.
New Jersey, for example, has one of the lowest rates of smoking in the country. About 12 percent of adults 18 to 24 in the Garden State smoke. In Virginia, 18 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoke.  
Health concerns aside, it’s surprising that young people especially choose to spend their limited cash on cigarettes. The average cost of a pack of cigarettes nationwide, including state and federal excise taxes, is $6.16.
Unfortunately about 42 million Americans and 3 million middle and high school students smoke. The key, health advocates say, is stopping kids from starting.
The surgeon general last year reported that high school students are more likely to use E-cigarette products than old-fashioned tobacco, including cigarettes and cigars. Most E-cigarettes contain nicotine, the report said.
But is an age ban the smartest course to discourage teens from lighting up and vaping? Big Tobacco wouldn’t like it but raising excise taxes still higher could serve as a deterrent for all ages.
On a practical level, we should consider who’s going to enforce the new laws. I bet most of us would rather our overworked law enforcement officers focus on stopping youth violence than go after convenience store clerks who sell a pack to a 20-year-old.
Do we really care as a society if the teen gang member who’s making our city streets unsafe has a pack of cigarettes in his pocket?
Recognizing that young people have the brains to make the right choices in life is a first step toward creating a responsible citizenry. We should respect our responsible adults, not baby them.  
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fake news? Don't get mad. Get facts -- July 20, 2017 column


A Facebook friend shared a quote the other day purportedly from Vice President Mike Pence on Fox News.

Americans need more “Jesus care” not health care, because if people went to church, they’d be healed and wouldn’t need doctors, according to Pence.

The post soon sparked plenty of angry comments. Almost as quickly, though, someone linked to an article by the independent fact-checking site The quote was wholly fabricated.

Snopes rated the post “False” with a big red X, explaining the image macro, a picture with text, surfaced in May on Fox News the Facebook Page, which used a Fox News logo and lampooned Fox News, but was totally unrelated to Fox News. 

The Facebook page appears to have been taken down, but everything is immortal on the internet.

It was heartening to see the fabrication identified and neutralized so rapidly. Perhaps someone thought the quote squirrely – it was ungrammatical – but instead of moving to the popular video of the dog saving the fawn looked into the quote and found the facts.

That’s what we should do: Check out stories designed to make us mad, find the truth and share it. Fake news is an equal opportunity liar. So, whatever our personal political leanings, we all benefit when sunshine kills the germs.

Facebook is taking steps to combat fake news, but the perps are likely to find ways around changes. That’s why policing social media is up to us.

It’s also heartening to see news organizations persevere in debunking President Donald Trump’s brags and myths – and he has noticed.

“We’ve signed more bills – and I’m talking about through the legislature – than any president ever,” Trump said Monday at the White House.

“For a while, Harry Truman had us, and now I think we have everybody. . . I better say `think,’ otherwise they’ll give me a Pinocchio. And I don’t like those; I don’t like Pinocchios,” Trump said.

The Washington Post’s fact-checkers award up to four Pinocchios for falsehoods. 

Pinocchio-anxiety notwithstanding, Trump was still way off on his numbers. He lags behind Truman and several other presidents in bills signed to date, the Post fact-checkers reported, but they gave no Pinocchios for that flirtation with falsehood.

“He certainly appeared to pause for a moment and wonder if he was right. For Trump, that’s a step in the right direction,” the Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote.

Trump dismisses any news and news outlets he dislikes as fake news.

But fake news is intentional deceit, or as The New York Times put it, “pure fiction masquerading as truth.” Trump more often labels as fake news truth that makes him look bad.

Trump’s long-running war on the news media may yet backfire. Americans’ confidence in newspapers is actually up from last year, the Gallup organization reported last month.

To be sure, it’s nothing to brag about. Just 27 percent of people said they had confidence in newspapers -- but that was up 7 percentage points from a year earlier. Baby steps.

People actually have more confidence in news on the internet than in Congress -- 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively, even though the internet is a fake news incubator.

The mainstream news media aren’t perfect by any means, but when they get it wrong, the incidents are painful. Three CNN staffers resigned last month after the network retracted a story about alleged ties between Russia and a Wall Street financier who is a Trump ally. 

On Friday, Trump named the financier, Anthony Scaramucci, a tough critic of the news media, White House communications director. (Updated 7.21.17)

But there’s a difference between mistakes and deliberate lies. Fake news can have dangerous consequences.

Last December, a gullible 28-year-old man in North Carolina drove 350 miles to investigate internet reports of a child sex ring connected to the Clinton campaign in a Washington pizza restaurant.

He fired an AR-15 in the restaurant -- only to learn he had been misled. There were no endangered children, much less a sex ring. His loaded weapons were real, though, and could have caused real tragedy.

Stopping fake news may be impossible, but we all must do what we can to expose it. The stakes are too high.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dare to eat a peach -- and other summer pleasures -- July 13, 2017 column


When author Henry James said the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon,” he surely wasn’t thinking about a heat index over 100 degrees.

But not everybody can be like my neighbors who bought a house on a cove in Maine to escape Northern Virginia’s swampy summers.

“See you in late September!” they sang out happily as they drove away in May.

Nor should we hunker down with our news feeds. Many of us stuck in town need to remember that endlessly reading tweets by the Donalds -- father and son – just makes us hotter under the collar.

Fall may not be in the air, but it is yapping at our consciousness. I’ve spotted two “Kaine 2018” bumper stickers in two days, a sure sign autumn and yet another election are coming. Back-to-school sales are in full swing, and Redskins training camp kicks off July 26.

So sit back, sip a cool drink and banish the vexing news from the nation’s capital. Just for a while.  

Here are three ways to seize the (summer) day.

No. 1 – Hit the road – and go slow.

Forget fighting traffic on Interstates. Take the back roads, and head to the mountains. The Department of the Interior named Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park one of the eight best drives in all of America.

The 105-mile road through the Blue Ridge Mountains has “some of the most sublime views in the nation,” the Interior Department says. The 35 mph speed limit is the “perfect speed to roll down the windows and let the wind whip through your hair.”

And, boomers 62 and older, now is the time to buy a lifetime Senior Pass for admission to national parks. The cost is just $10 until Aug. 28, when it rises to $80. Buy the Senior Pass at the park entrance to save time.

You could order online but demand is so heavy it takes nine weeks to get the passes, Interior warns. 

No. 2 – Go partway on the Great American Total Solar Eclipse.

This sounds harsh as the astronomical mega-event Aug. 21 will be the first coast-to-coast total eclipse since 1918. Unless you’ve already made arrangements, though, settle for the partial eclipse, which we should see in Virginia, weather permitting.

People in the know booked motels and campsites years ago in the so-called Path of Totality, including Nashville, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Columbia, S.C.

Plus, more than 200 million people live within a day’s drive of the path. Do you really want to risk viewing the eclipse bumper to bumper?  

If you plan to watch the eclipse, get your viewing glasses ahead of time and don’t bother with your camera. The event will be over before you know it. The moon will cover the sun for no more than 160 seconds in prime locations.

And plan ahead. The next total solar eclipse in North America is just seven years away, April 8, 2024. It will swing from Mexico through Texas to Maine and into Canada. You’ve got this.

No. 3 – Eat a peach.

Dire news reports last spring warned that a late March freeze had ruined the peach crop for 2017. Not to worry. It did -- and it didn’t.

Peaches are far less plentiful in the peachiest states, Georgia and South Carolina, but orchards farther north suffered no lasting deleterious effects of the cold snap.

Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania are enjoying an excellent crop, so buy local. Virginia’s more than 200 peach farms expect an abundant peach supply through early 

Add peach pie or ice cream to your menu – and tuck into a taste of summer.

And remember -- President Ronald Reagan declared July 1984 National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday of July National Ice Cream Day.

“Ice cream is a nutritious and wholesome food, enjoyed by over ninety percent of the people in the United States. It enjoys a reputation as the perfect dessert and snack food,” Reagan said in his proclamation. Not a word about sugar, fat or calories.

“I call upon the people of the United States to observe these events with appropriate ceremonies and activities,” he wrote.

Now that’s an executive order everybody can get behind. Happy summer!

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Can't we get along and pass paid family leave? -- July 6, 2017 column


President Donald Trump, the father of five who boasts he has never changed a diaper, wants to give new moms and dads paid parental leave.

His 2018 budget proposes six months’ paid leave for parents after the birth or adoption of a child “so all families can afford to take time to recover from childbirth and bond with a new child without worrying about paying their bills.”

During last year’s campaign, though, Trump proposed paid maternity leave for biological mothers only. 

“Maternity leave has a 1990s feel to it,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, said last September. “It’s not 2016. Because in 2016 not only do women take off to take care of kids when they’re born, but men do too.”

Those who take time off mostly do so without pay.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, workers in companies with 50 or more employees are eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a baby, sick family member or themselves. Many parents can’t afford to take leave.  

Only 13 percent of private-industry employees had access to paid family leave through their employers in March 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most likely to benefit: highly paid, full-time, managerial employees who work for large companies.  

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton promised 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents and those taking care of seriously ill family members.

At a time when politicians of all stripes talk about how family friendly they are, first daughter Ivanka Trump has made paid family leave her issue.

Here’s the problem: Almost everybody favors helping moms and dads spend more time with their children in the abstract -- and if someone else is footing the bill.  

Trump wants to run paid family leave through state Unemployment Insurance programs, which means payments are unlikely to cover anything close to full salary. His budget asks for about $25 billion for 10 years and says states will have flexibility on how to provide and finance payments.

The plan has drawn deafening silence on Capitol Hill, where it is competing with Democratic and Republican paid family leave plans.

The leading Democratic plan calls for a nationwide insurance program funded by employers and employees through the Social Security Administration.  Republicans favor tax credits, which could be part of tax reform.

After meeting with congressional Republicans last month, Ivanka Trump seemed to acknowledge a bumpy road ahead.

“Just left a productive meeting on the Hill to discuss issues affecting American working families, including childcare & paid family leave!” she tweeted.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said: “And we’ll see what the next step is, but it’s certainly something we’re going to continue to work on.”

Critics on the left say Trump’s plan is stingy and should cover those caring for sick family members. The business community says requiring employers to pay for paid leave will cost jobs and hurt the economy.

Critics on the right, wary of Ivanka Trump’s bona fides as a Republican, worry about another big government program. A Wall Street Journal editorial May 26 knocked her plan as “The Ivanka Entitlement.”

“As usual the policy sounds unobjectionable but the details are messy. If the benefit is available regardless of income, the government will subsidize affluent families who don’t need assistance. But inevitably the benefit will phase out as income rises like dozens of other federal subsidies. That could create another disincentive for work and advancement that traps families in poverty,” the Journal’s editors wrote.

She responded Wednesday in a letter to the editor: “Providing a national guaranteed paid-leave program – with a reasonable time limit and a benefit cap – isn’t an entitlement. It’s an investment in America’s working families.”

In a sign of our toxic political discourse, that last, innocuous sentence rankled some Republicans because Democrats often cast their spending priorities as investments.

But spending to give workers a helping hand as they start and care for their families is a worthy investment. Democrats and Republicans should put aside their bickering and work together to make paid family leave a reality.

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.