Thursday, September 27, 2018

How America missed Cosby's crime -- Sept. 27, 2018 column


Once upon a time, Bill Cosby made us feel good about America. Then his victims told us what we didn’t know.  

It seems incredible in our #MeToo era that any man – even someone as rich and powerful as Cosby -- could drug and sexually assault dozens of women over decades with impunity.

To understand how it happened, we need to remember what TV and America were like when a young Cosby started telling us stories we wanted to hear.

The stooped 81-year-old sexual predator being led away in handcuffs Tuesday was nothing like the wholesome, vibrant Dr. Cliff Huxtable viewers respected and loved for the eight seasons of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s and ‘90s and later in reruns.

Cosby created, produced and starred in the first TV sitcom hit that depicted a successful, upper middle-class black family. He played an obstetrician married to a lawyer.  

It’s hard to underestimate the show’s cultural significance.

“For me being on `The Cosby Show’ was like being a part of history,” Lili Bernard says in a new BBC documentary, “Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon,” on YouTube.
Cosby drugged and raped her in the 1990s, she says.

Her interview is one of several victims’ accounts woven into the documentary. The film contends white and black viewers alike so loved the fictional America Cosby created that he was able to continue his double life even as woman after woman reported his sexual misconduct.  

For a long time, many Americans simply found it inconceivable Cosby did what he was accused of doing.

Not only was he reportedly the world’s highest paid entertainer for a time, but he also won several Emmys and Kennedy Center honors -- for lifetime achievement in the performing arts in 1998 and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009.

Fans dismissed as supermarket tabloid trash a National Enquirer story in 2000 about a Cosby victim. As other women’s stories appeared, people blamed the victims, calling them gold diggers and worse.

Despite rumors of marital infidelity, Cosby was revered. He was married – to the same wife! – and like Huxtable had five children. A philanthropist, he gave millions to black colleges and universities.

As “America’s Dad,” he went on tour, lecturing black men and women about responsibility, but his scolding did not sit well. It’s safe to say his hypocrisy led to his downfall.

In 2014, a black comedian named Hannibal Buress doing stand-up in Philadelphia called Cosby the “smuggest old black man” and “a rapist.” Do an internet search for Cosby and rape, Buress suggested. A reporter in the audience filmed and posted the performance, and the video went viral.

Only then did decade-old events get the attention they deserved.

Andrea Constand was 30 and a Temple University women’s basketball administrator when she went to Cosby’s mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2004. Cosby, a member of the Temple Board of Trustees, was her mentor.

He gave her pills and then molested her, she told authorities a year later. But it was a he-said, she-said situation, and no charges were filed.

Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby for sexual battery and defamation. After he gave a four-day deposition, they settled the case in Constand’s favor for nearly $3.4 million.

Finally, nine years after she first reported Cosby, police used his admissions in the deposition to pursue the criminal case.

More than 60 victims found the strength to come forward, some after staying silent since the 1960s. Cosby was charged only in Constand’s case as others were beyond the statute of limitations.

His family and friends tried to portray Cosby as the victim of racism and sexism, but his victims were black and white.

He so carefully crafted his persona that people thought he was Cliff Huxtable – thoughtful, funny and upright. But reality was far different.

As the real Cosby was revealed, he lost endorsements and reruns of “The Cosby Show” were canceled, costing him income. The Kennedy Center rescinded his honors.
Declared a sexually violent predator under Pennsylvania law, Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison for aggravated indecent assault.

Then they locked him up.

If nothing else, we should learn a TV character is just a TV character – no matter how beloved he seems.   

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Women's equality -- yes, it's political -- Sept. 20, 2018 column


Asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a ready answer.

“When there are nine,” she says. “People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Ginsburg’s provocative response came to mind during the debacle surrounding President Donald Trump’s selection of Brett Kavanaugh for the nation’s highest court. Trump could have nominated a woman.

After all, President Ronald Reagan nominated the first woman justice – Sandra Day O’Connor.

We’re nowhere near Ginsburg’s goal. Only three of the nine are women – Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. 

Not that choosing a woman to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy would have guaranteed smooth sailing. It’s easy to imagine Trump choosing the wrong woman just as President George W. Bush did in 2005.

Bush crashed on the rocks of public opinion with his ill-conceived choice of White House counsel Harriet Miers to replace O’Connor. Miers, who had no judicial experience, was such an unsuitable pick she withdrew before her confirmation hearing.

Bush then chose federal appellate judge Samuel Alito, who is one of the most conservative justices.

Americans consistently tell pollsters they’d like to see more women leaders in both politics and business.

Majorities of Americans say having more women in top positions in government and business would improve the quality of life for everyone, for men and for women, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey released Thursday.

But there’s a gender gap. Seven in 10 women say there should be more women in high political office and in top business jobs, but only about half of men say so.

And – no surprise -- Democrats and Republicans see the state of women’s equality very differently. Nearly eight in 10 Democrats and Democratically-leaning independents say too few women hold high political office, but only one in three Republicans and Republican-leaners think so.

With the most women running for Congress ever, the looming question for the midterms is whether voters will make this truly a Year of the Woman.

The dismal approval rating of the Republican-controlled Congress – still bumping the bottom at 19 percent in the latest Gallup poll – suggests a desire for change.

Only 31 percent of Republicans approve of the way Congress handles its job, but that’s far higher than the 8 percent of Democrats who approve. Among independents, 17 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.

The current Congress has a record 112 women – 89 in the House and 23 in the Senate – but that’s only 21 percent of the total. Most the women are Democrats – 64 in the House and 17 in the Senate.

For a sense of how long it’s taken women to get this far, 52 women have ever served in the Senate and 23 are serving now.

Of the 53 women who filed to run for the U.S. Senate this year, 23 made it through their primaries and are still in the running. In the House, 239 of the 476 women who filed are still in the running, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Several Democratic women in the House are forming Elect Democratic Women, a PAC inspired by the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, that plans to raise money for female Democratic candidates.

“We really feel very strongly that better decisions will be made by government when it represents the diverse population it is supposed to represent,” Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Florida, chairwoman of the group, told Politico.

Winning for Women PAC, whose leaders include former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, formed last year to endorse conservative candidates and serve as a counterweight to EMILY’s List, the powerful Democratic group that endorses abortion rights candidates.   

The competing PACs are emerging as women worry women candidates may be losing ground. Women are more doubtful now than they were four years ago that voters are ready to elect women, Pew found.

In 2014, about 41 percent of women thought the main reason women were underrepresented in high political offices was voters weren’t ready to elect women. Now, after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, 57 percent of women say they think voters aren’t ready.  

We’ll know the night of Nov. 6.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

FDA's good deed: protecting kids from e-cigs -- Sept. 13, 2018 column


Remember Joe Camel? In the 1980s and 1990s, anti-smoking advocates blamed the cartoon figure for encouraging kids to smoke.

R.J. Reynolds insisted it was not marketing to children but in 1997 pulled ads for Camel cigarettes that portrayed the “Smooth character.” The White House praised the company’s decision.  

“We must put tobacco ads like Joe Camel out of our children’s reach forever,” President Bill Clinton said.

Twenty-one years later, President Donald Trump’s administration blames flavored e-cigarettes for encouraging kids to vape.

“We cannot allow a whole new generation to become addicted to nicotine,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, declared Wednesday.

Those were welcome words from an administration that’s been busier rolling back regulations than proposing new ones to protect health.

In some ways, foes of tobacco have won. After decades of anti-smoking messages that cigarettes are dirty and smelly, only about 16 percent of American adults smoke.

But e-cigarettes present a new health danger in part because they look nothing like conventional cigarettes. Some sleek nicotine-delivery systems resemble a flash drive and can be charged in a computer’s USB port.

“Experience freedom from ash and odor. No mess. No fuss,” Juul Labs, the dominate e-cigarette maker with 72 percent of the market, says on its website.

E-cigarettes do not have the harmful chemicals of regular cigarettes, but some provide as much addictive nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.

“The developing adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction,” FDA said in a statement. 

That makes e-cigs “an almost ubiquitous – and dangerous – trend among teens,” Gottlieb said. “The disturbing and accelerating trajectory of use we’re seeing in youth, and the resulting path to addiction, must end. It’s simply not tolerable.”

More than two million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes last year, he said, as he announced a series of measures aimed at stopping the “epidemic” of teen vaping.

The FDA sent more than 1,100 warning letters to stores for the illegal sale of e-cigarettes to young people under 18 and issued 131 fines to stores that continued selling to minors.

The agency also gave Juul and four other manufacturers 60 days to prove they can keep the devices out of kids’ hands. If they don’t, the FDA threatened to pull flavored products off the market.

Trump’s FDA last year extended an Obama-era deadline for review of most e-cigarette products from August of last year to 2022. Public health and anti-smoking groups are fighting the extension in court. If e-cigarette companies fail to improve their products voluntarily, Gottlieb said, he may reconsider the longer deadline.

E-cigarette makers insist they are not marketing to children. But that’s what tobacco companies argued – both in company statements and at congressional hearings – before Joe Camel was put out to pasture.

The Vapor Technology Association, the industry’s trade group, says the products are designed for adults who want to quit smoking, and companies want to keep e-cigarettes away from minors. Vaping is safer than conventional cigarettes, the industry contends, and FDA’s actions could make public health worse by sending millions of ex-smokers back to conventional cigarettes.

The potential for helping adults quit smoking makes this war on nicotine more complicated than simply killing a cartoon character.

The administration is “committed to advancing policies that promote the potential of e-cigarettes to help adult smokers move away from combustible cigarettes,” Gottlieb said, but “that work can’t come at the expense of kids.”

Critics of FDA’s campaign called the agency’s measures a gift to the tobacco industry, which has found e-cigarettes a tough competitor. Tobacco stocks surged on the FDA news.

Health and anti-smoking groups praised the FDA’s plan, but said more needs to be done sooner rather than later. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids wants an immediate ban on all flavored e-cigarettes.

A generation ago, a tobacco company recognized Joe Camel was a public relations nightmare and needed to take a hike.  

E-cigarette companies need to recognize their own p.r. disaster. To prove their products are only for adults, they should ditch sweet flavors like mango, fruit medley and cool cucumber. That would be kid friendly.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 7, 2018

States start to see food as medicine -- On STATELINE Sept. 7, 2018


Take Two Carrots and Call Me in the Morning

Half a century after Americans began fighting hunger with monthly food stamps, the nation’s physicians and policymakers are focusing more than ever on what’s on each person’s plate.
In the 21st century, food is seen as medicine — and a tool to cut health care costs.
The “food is medicine” concept is simple: If chronically ill people eat a nutritious diet, they’ll need fewer medications, emergency room visits and hospital readmissions.
The food is medicine spectrum ranges from simply encouraging people to plant a garden and learn to cook healthfully, as state Sen. Judy Lee, a Republican, does in North Dakota — “We don’t do policies about gardening,” she said — to an intensive California pilot project that delivers two medically tailored meals plus snacks daily and offers three counseling sessions with a registered dietitian over 12 weeks.
The California Legislature last year became the first in the nation to fund a large-scale pilot project to test food is medicine. The three-year, $6 million project launched in April will serve about a thousand patients with congestive heart failure in seven counties.
“The state puts a huge amount of money into health care, and one of the biggest costs is medication,” Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat and chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said in an interview. “So the hope is people will live longer and this project will also reduce the need for medication.”
The food is medicine concept has been around for a while. Since the 1980s, nonprofits such as Project Open Hand in San Francisco, Community Servings in Boston, God’s Love We Deliver in New York and MANNA or Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance in Philadelphia have provided medically tailored meals for patients with HIV, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. They are largely funded by donations and grants.
Seeing the programs’ successes, some states are taking a larger role. Massachusetts is developing a food is medicine plan with a goal of integrating programs scattered around the state so more residents can benefit. Legislative policy proposals are expected next spring.
Food is medicine goes beyond traditional advice to eat more fruits and vegetables. Projects pay for people to purchase produce and offer nutrition counseling and cooking classes, so they’ll know which foods to choose or avoid and how to prepare them. For example, watermelon is healthy for some, but not for a diabetic.  
On the local level, a community garden managed by a teenager in Sylvester, Georgia, aims — with the help of the local hospital — to improve the health of the town in the nation’s “stroke belt.”
Physicians in a dozen states write “prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and groceries — scripts that can be exchanged for tokens to buy produce.
“Food is medicine is an idea whose day has arrived,” said Robert Greenwald, faculty director of the Harvard Law School’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, one of the experts who testified in January at the launch of the congressional Food is Medicine Working Group, part of the House Hunger Caucus.
The Senate version of the farm bill includes Harvesting Health, a pilot project to test fruit-and-vegetable prescriptions. It’s modeled on work by Wholesome Wave, a Bridgeport, Connecticut, nonprofit that works with health centers in a dozen states where doctors write prescriptions for produce.
If enacted, the federal government would spend $20 million over five years on grants to states or nonprofits to provide fruits and vegetables and nutrition education to low-income patients with diet-related conditions.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the food stamp program known as SNAP, helps reduce food insecurity for 39.6 million participants, but studies do not show SNAP improves nutrition. Instead, there seems to be a correlation between long-term food stamp participation and excess weight gain.
Poor diet was No. 1 of 17 leading risk factors for death in the United States in 2016 — a higher risk than smoking, drug use, lack of exercise and other factors, according to “The State of US Health,” a comprehensive report by a team of academics published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April.
Dr. Kumara Sidhartha, an internal medicine specialist and medical director at Emerald Physicians on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, conducted a prescription study with Medicaid participants in 2016 and 2017. In his study, he wrote prescriptions or vouchers for one group to buy $30 in produce a week at the farmers market, and gave another $30 in gasoline vouchers a week — for 12 weeks. Both groups received cooking classes and nutrition counseling.
Twenty-four people completed the program, and those who received the fruit and vegetable prescriptions showed improvements in risk factors for chronic disease — better body mass index, total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c, Sidhartha said.
“Patients and physicians are so used to the physician writing prescriptions for procedures and pills,” he said. “This changes the health care culture of how the prescription is used.”  
Proponents of the California project hope it will demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of including medically tailored meals as an essential health benefit covered by Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program.
“This is potentially transformative because the health care system has been designed to cover acute services, and not many prevention programs are covered,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, an associate professor at the University of California-San Francisco, one of two physician researchers who will evaluate the project by tracking participants’ medical records.
“For someone with congestive heart failure, their lives depend on their capacity to eat a lower salt diet,” Seligman said. “Making the food as appealing as possible is very important.”
Some legislators are skeptical about government moving into new food delivery systems.
“We need to feed the children who are hungry now. We need the backpack programs in school, the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunches to make sure that nobody is hungry today,” said North Dakota’s Lee, chairwoman of the state Senate Human Services Committee, at a food is medicine session at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Hunger Partnership conference in July.
“But then we need to take those same children and help them learn how to do those things for themselves,” Lee said. “Let’s have a short-term solution: Let’s feed people. And then let’s have a longer-term solution: Help them feed themselves.”
Everyone in her state could have a garden, even apartment-dwellers, and they can learn to cook, she said, adding that cooking is a skill that’s been lost since schools there dropped home economics.
“Kids can learn and a parent can learn how to make a meal,” Lee said in an interview. “I’d rather figure out a way to give them cooking lessons with food. We’re not helping children become functional adults by giving them three meals a day.”
It’s not government’s job to provide every meal, she said, adding, “That’s the good news about North Dakota, compared with the Northeast and California.” 
Georgia state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Republican and chairwoman of the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee and co-chairwoman of the NCSL hunger partnership, suggested at the food is medicine session that a community garden with a medical purpose in her state — and started by a child — could be a model.
Village Community Garden manager Janya Green was 12 when she started on the community garden as her 4-H Club project three years ago on 5 acres donated by the town of Sylvester, population 6,000, about 170 miles south of Atlanta. Anyone can pick free vegetables and fruit whenever they like. The garden features cabbage, carrots, kale, okra, bell peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, blackberries, blueberries, muscadine grapes and even bananas. Herbs are next.
A pond is stocked with fish, so residents can reel in healthy protein as well. A local county commissioner gave lumber for a 20- by 60-foot stage.
Phoebe Worth Medical Center installed an outdoor kitchen in the garden for chef-taught cooking classes. Darrell Sabbs, governmental affairs specialist at the medical center, hopes researchers from Emory University or the University of Georgia will study the health statistics of the neighborhood and gauge the garden’s health effects.
Dr. Marilyn Carter, an internal medicine physician who also trained as a pharmacist, lives in Sylvester and volunteers at the garden. She and a nutritionist wrote up health benefits of the produce for signs that will help people make smart choices.
“We’re in the stroke belt,” Carter pointed out, adding that many of her patients have heart disease and diabetes. People eat a typical Southern diet of fried foods and foods out of boxes that are high calorie and high fat, she said.
“I want people to know, ‘If I eat more kale and less white rice, my blood pressure will be better,’” she said. Her name for the garden: the Farmacy.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Taxpayers subsidize Amazon. (Amazon?!) We shouldn't have to. -- Sept. 6, 2018 column

President Donald J. Trump rails against Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, because Trump hates the Post’s tough coverage of his administration. For Trump, it’s always all about him.
Former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders attacks Bezos because he’s the richest man on earth and chief executive of Amazon. Thousands of Amazon workers reportedly make so little they have to rely on public assistance. For Sanders, it’s about taxpayers subsidizing the rich.
Must be an election year.
“The American people are tired of subsidizing multi-billionaires who own some of the largest and most profitable corporations in America,” Sanders, a Vermont independent, said Wednesday when he proposed the Stop BEZOS Act -- Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act.
Nothing subtle in that stiletto-knife acronym.   
The measure would require companies with more than 500 workers to reimburse, in effect, the government for federal benefits their low-wage workers receive. If an Amazon worker received $2,000 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly food stamps, Amazon would be taxed $2,000 to cover the cost. Inc. reached $1 trillion in market value Tuesday, and Bezos’ personal net worth is somewhere in the stratosphere of $167 billion. Naturally people resent him and Amazon’s ever-expanding reach into our lives -- even as we enjoy one-click ordering and same-day delivery.
Amazon is not the only employer that relies on the kindness of taxpayers. Workers at Walmart, Burger King, McDonalds and American Airlines, among others, get federal assistance.     
“Thousands of American workers have to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing to survive. That is what a rigged economy looks like,” Sanders tweeted.
Rep. Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, has introduced a similar bill in the House.
But don’t get your hopes -- or your dander -- up. These bills are dead. Nothing will come of them.
Like Trump’s claim Bezos should pay higher delivery fees to the U.S. Postal Service, Sanders is making a political point. Sanders’ bill is still significant because it is ludicrous that taxpayers have to plump the bottom line of companies like Amazon.
A living wage is still a dream for many in this country. Congress refuses to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, though many states have. About 39.6 million Americans still need SNAP benefits, despite Republican efforts to pare the rolls.
Taxing the companies is pleasantly punitive but it wouldn’t put a dime in workers’ pockets and could provide a disincentive to hire poor people.
Amazon reported its median salary was $28,446 last year but insists that’s the global median and include part-time workers. The median salary in the United States is $34,123, and full-time employees receive generous benefits, the company said. Median, as you know, means half the people make more and half less.
But, Sanders said, the figures are misleading because Amazon hires 40 percent of its workforce as temporary workers, and their pay isn’t included.
At a “CEOs vs Workers” panel Sanders held in July, Seth King, an eight-year Navy vet who worked at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Chester, Va., talked about working conditions.   
On his feet for 10 hours, he was not allowed to sit down or talk to coworkers in his aisle, and work goals were unattainable, he said. Isolated and depressed, he quit after two months. Sanders plans to visit the Chester facility this month.
Sanders Wednesday shared this story from a current employee:  
“I work 40 hours a week at $13.25. I have 2 kids to support. I receive 90 dollars of food stamps . . . I don’t make enough to eat lunch at work so I split a protein shake between 2 meals to make sure my children eat,” the worker wrote.
Is this the kind of country we want?
Sanders says billionaires like Bezos and the Walton family of Walmart need to get off corporate welfare and pay their workers a living wage. A Democratic Congress might nudge them in that direction.
Trump says the economy has never been better, he’s doing the best job of any president ever, and everybody’s rich. He wants a Republican Congress so he can keep things as they are.
For me, there’s no contest.   
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.