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Editorial Roundup: Excerpts from recent editorials

November 20, 2019

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

Nov. 20

The Los Angeles Times on a plan that would have pulled flavored electronic cigarettes from the market:

Faced with a troubling outbreak of a mysterious vaping-related illness and the skyrocketing use of electronic cigarettes among teens, President Trump announced in September that the Food and Drug Administration would pull flavored electronic-cigarettes from the market, possibly within weeks.

“People are dying,” the president said during a televised news conference with the heads of the FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. He promised quick action, and he was right to do so. At that point, six people had died from the new illness, and hundreds more had been hospitalized with severe lung damage. An alarming number of the victims were young adults or teens who said they used vaping devices for both cannabis and nicotine. Since then, 44 people have died and more than 2,000 people have been sickened.

Trump’s plan, reportedly urged by his wife and eldest daughter, was a good one (and a rare smart move on public health policy from an administration better known for dismantling environmental protections). Never mind that it wasn’t a perfect answer to the current crisis. Even then, the vaping illness was suspected to be primarily caused by use of black market vaping devices modified for cannabis or THC and containing vitamin E oil. (Health officials are now pretty sure that’s what’s causing the illness.)

But a ban on flavored electronic-cigarettes is still good public health policy. Vaping use among minors has grown precipitously in recent years — doubling in just the last two years to about a quarter of all high school seniors, studies show. The trend is primarily driven by an attraction to flavors like candy and fruit. Nearly 80% of teens who vape said they did so because of the flavors. And even if they aren’t using the aftermarket products associated with the vaping illness, the high levels of nicotine in electronic cigarettes hook users quickly, and nicotine use presents its own health risks.

There was also solid precedent for the move Trump proposed. In 2009, the FDA prohibited the makers of traditional cigarettes from using flavors other than menthol because of their appeal to kids. Public health officials say the ban on flavors was a main factor in teens losing interest in cigarette smoking, which fell to an all-time low in 2018.

It seemed possible that Trump’s ban would go into effect. Vaping isn’t the political third rail that guns are, and it’s not as complicated, controversial or fraught as, say, immigration or Middle East policy. Who, other than the companies that profit from hooking people on this addictive but nonessential product, could find fault with a move to protect the nation’s children from potential harm?

We should have known better.

According to the Washington Post, the FDA was set to announce on Nov. 5 that it would order flavored electronic cigarettes to be banned for sale within 30 days. But the day before the announcement, reports said, Trump decided not to sign the “decision memo” out of concern that it might lead to job losses that could be used against him during his reelection campaign.

This is just another example of Trump’s tendency to say one thing and then do another. Such was the case when Trump said he would support sensible gun control (such as closing loopholes on background checks) after a particularly bad run of mass shootings, but then flip-flopped after strong words from the National Rifle Assn. Or when the president said his administration would stop separating families at the border and continued to do it anyway. Or when he abandoned a highly touted proposal to reduce drug prices by blocking a practice that benefits drug-buying insurance middlemen. We could do this all day.

It seems the country is led by a man so concerned with hanging on to his job that he would throw over an entire generation of children in the process.

It’s not too late for Trump to come to his senses and sign the order that would direct the FDA to ban electronic cigarette flavors immediately — before he could change his mind again. But we won’t hold our breath.

Online: https://www.latimes.com/

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Nov. 18

The Chicago Tribune on a decimal point error that led to an amended judgment for Johnson & Johnson:

Judge Thad Balkman has had several brushes with fame. When he was 14 years old, filmmakers shooting “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” used the Balkman family’s house in Long Beach, California, as Ferris’ suburban Chicago home. In high school, Balkman was elected president of a senior class that included entertainer Snoop Dogg. And after law school in Oklahoma, Balkman had a distinguished run in that state’s legislature.

Unfortunately, though, the judge’s latest moment of notoriety is much different — a humiliation borne of his humanity. All of us make mistakes, although usually not in legal judgments against a consumer products Goliath such as Johnson & Johnson. On Friday (Nov. 15), Balkman had to admit that his decimal place error had created a $107 million mistake in an opioid case verdict that had been big news from coast to coast.

Last summer Balkman heard the first case to go to trial among thousands of cases nationwide claiming that drug companies and distributors marketed opioids too vigorously, and thus are liable for provoking a deadly epidemic of overdoses. In August he ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in an opioid crisis that, Oklahoma’s attorney general contended, had killed 4,653 people in that state from 2007 to 2017. Balkman’s verdict received extensive media coverage: It’s expected to shape settlement negotiations over more than 2,000 similar lawsuits filed by local, state and tribal governments. Many of those cases now are consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

Johnson & Johnson lawyers then noticed that Balkman evidently hadn’t done what his math teachers surely had taught him to do: When solving a problem, first estimate your answer. Then do the math — twice. No, don’t blindly trust the calculator (or your dexterity in using it). Check your work. And never forget, there are devils in the decimals.

In his August order, Balkman had included in the $572 million his calculation that it would cost Oklahoma birthing hospitals $107,683,000 for training to treat infants born dependent on opioids.

Except the judge had made a three-place decimal error. The true cost is $107,683.

Balkman admitted his error in October and, on Friday, lowered the $572 million judgment to $465 million.

Judge Balkman, we write about this with empathy. Here at the Chicago Tribune, we make mistakes. Were he alive, the not-quite-President Thomas E. Dewey could tell you about a doozy we made in 1948. We admire your forthright admission of error, and applaud your good humor in declaring, “That will be the last time I use that calculator.”

More important than our applause, you now are a prospective lesson plan celebrity to America’s 3.2 million math teachers. Students routinely complain to them that “I’ll never use math in real life” or “This calculator knows all the math I’ll ever need.” The teachers now can retort with the saga of a judge, his verdict and his imaginary $107 million.

Real life does demand math skills, daily. Judge Balkman, your decimal debacle gives the rest of us 107 million reasons to thank the teachers who drive home that truth.

Online: https://www.chicagotribune.com/

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Nov. 18

The Washington Post on countries that want to shut off the internet from public use:

Iran had a blunt solution this past weekend to an eruption of protests by angry citizens: Turn off the Internet. All of it.

Web shutdowns have become a common strategy for repressive governments, but experts say this weekend’s response to widespread demonstrations over a spike in gasoline prices is the biggest yet. It took officials 24 hours to achieve their aim, but once they did, only 5 percent of regular users — including top politicians such as the supreme leader — were still online. Those who were cut off were unable to communicate beyond Iran’s borders and within them.

Iran’s move is notable for its complexity. Many developing nations whose leaders have hit the switch recently have had to do just that: hit the switch, and only one, because the country connects through a single, state-sponsored service provider. The Internet in Iran, by contrast, is more diverse. The government didn’t purchase it off the shelf for an all-in-one installation, but private contractors built it bit by bit. Taking it away required hitting multiple switches, or sending multiple orders to multiple parties.

The threat going forward is that the nations that remain mostly unwired will create networks that are, as Alp Toker of watchdog organization Netblocks puts it, “disruptable by design” — much like China’s carefully constructed Great Firewall. These nations, mostly in Africa and Latin America, are already at the center of a battle over whether the Web will remain worldwide at all, or whether countries will maintain sovereign Internets with tight government control.

A law laying the foundation for this vision of control took effect in Russia this month, allowing the government to block traffic from abroad “in an emergency” and imposing requirements on service providers that would make it easier to impose the sort of shutdown Iran achieved this past weekend — except, perhaps, without the 24-hour slog. Russia also led a United Nations resolution whose end goal is a treaty that could expand the definition of cybercrime so broadly, and give governments so much leeway to prevent supposed incursions, that all sorts of ordinary uses of the Internet could end up prohibited.

Russia, China and their allies want the same thing Iran wanted over the weekend: to shut up and shut in their citizens. They want to redirect the international community away from its long-standing focus on freedom on the Internet, by casting the Web as a dark place full of dangers — even as they are often the ones doing the attacking. Those countries that still believe the Internet has light to offer can’t afford to let the worst offenders lead the way to extinguishing it.

Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/

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Nov. 18

The Japan News on how Islamic State fighters may be treated in different countries following the death of the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:

There is no end in sight to Syria’s civil war, which has dragged on for more than eight years. There is a risk that extremist groups will reestablish themselves amid the instability and spread terror across the world. A sense of crisis must be shared among the countries involved.

A foreign ministerial-level meeting of coalition partners to discuss measures to cope with the Islamic State (IS) militant group was held in Washington.

IS has lost its bases in Syria and Iraq, and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a U.S. military operation in October. But it still maintains strongholds in Libya and elsewhere, while also continuing a propaganda campaign on the internet. The threat posed by the group has not disappeared.

Young people from countries in Europe and North America, radicalized under the guise of Islam, have received military training in Syria and elsewhere. Large-scale terrorist acts by these foreign fighters and their collaborators have occurred multiple times in France and Belgium. Similar atrocities must not be allowed to occur again.

The challenge for the time being lies in how to handle the group’s foreign fighters now detained in Turkey and Syria, and their families. Turkey has begun repatriating some of the about 1,200 foreign fighters detained in the country, about 30 to 40 percent of whom are said to be from European countries. The United States’ stance is that their home countries should accept them.

However, countries in Europe are reluctant to do so. The prevailing view is that these fighters should be judged according to the laws of the country in which they have allegedly committed crimes. Britain has revoked the citizenship of some such individuals.

Repatriated fighters will have to be prosecuted and punished in accordance with the laws of their home countries. However, gathering evidence that would lead to verdicts that find such fighters guilty of involvement in terrorism won’t be easy for these countries. Prosecuting those who have merely undergone training under European laws will be even more difficult.

Those fighters who are not found guilty and released could turn to terrorism in their home countries. It is understandable that European countries are concerned about such dangers.

Europe has criticized Turkey over such acts as launching cross-border attacks against Syria and is preparing punitive measures. Turkey’s hard-line stance could conceivably be a tactic to prevent European sanctions. If Turkey is repatriating foreign fighters, will it provide the governments of the receiving countries with the documents needed to try them in a court of law?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to join hands with Russia to take the initiative in Syria. The reality is that Russia and Turkey have filled a void created by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria.

Doubts remain after U.S. President Donald Trump’s warm display with Erdogan during recent talks. How should Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally forging closer ties with Russia, be dealt with? A clear strategy must be established.

Online: https://the-japan-news.com/

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Nov. 17

The New York Times on legislation to release people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies without cash bail:

Across the country, a movement away from incarceration has been a rare point of consensus among Americans who can agree on little else.

Yet talking about reform is one thing. Doing the work — asking for public trust while emptying cells in jails and prisons — will be harder.

That’s what’s happening now in New York State, where landmark criminal justice reforms are set to go into effect on Jan. 1.

Beginning next year, people charged with misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies will in most cases be released without cash bail, pending their trials. In another reform, prosecutors will be required to disclose evidence to the defense within 15 days of an indictment instead of shortly before trial, a practice that prompted many a guilty plea before court proceedings even got underway.

Similar reforms in New Jersey and elsewhere have reduced jail populations without endangering public safety.

Yet, in New York, on the eve of the reforms coming into force, a familiar chorus of concern has piped up.

Police Commissioner James O’Neill wrote in an op-ed in May that the law would have a “significant negative impact on public safety.” His successor, incoming Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, expressed similar views this month.

Prosecutors and police unions across the state have issued ominous warnings. “Think this is wrong & insane? Then tell your politicians that this needs to be repealed ASAP!” the Oneida City Police Benevolent Association wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 1.

In July, the New York Prosecutors Training Institute released audio of Jed Painter, a Nassau County assistant district attorney, training prosecutors on various ways to work with the police to subvert the spirit of the new law.

President Trump, who had no problem taking a victory lap over federal criminal justice reform, has been happy to whack his former home state. “So sad to see what is happening in New York where Governor Cuomo & Mayor DeBlasio are letting out 900 Criminals, some hardened & bad, onto the sidewalks of our rapidly declining, because of them, city,” he wrote on Twitter on Nov. 5. “The Radical Left Dems are killing our cities.”

Republicans in recent days have introduced legislation that would not only roll back the reforms, which were approved by the Legislature earlier this year, but go further. One bill, introduced by State Senator James Tedisco and Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, would put a one-year moratorium on the reforms.

Experience elsewhere and ample research show that there is no reason to believe New York’s reforms will lead to mayhem, or endanger the public.

In Philadelphia, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and felony offenses in 2018, there has been no significant change in the percentage of people who show up for their court dates.

In New Jersey, which introduced its reforms in 2017, a report from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts found no increase in crime associated with the reforms. In fact, studies suggest the opposite may be true: that pretrial detention makes people likelier to commit future crimes.

Pretrial detention, which involves jailing people who have been arrested for a crime but not yet convicted of it, comes with enormous costs, to individuals and society. Studies show that those held before trial are likelier to lose their jobs, their homes and custody of their children. Pretrial detention costs the United States an estimated $14 billion each year.

Reform is crucial to shrinking New York’s jail population and closing the notorious jails at Rikers Island.

The focus should be on implementation: Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature failed to include funding to help enact the reforms, a choice that means local officials will have to step up.

Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, has pledged to use $100 million in forfeiture funds from investigations into major banks to pay for pretrial services, like criminal history checks and court date reminders, and supervised release programs in a stopgap measure.

Panic from the law-and-order crowd is nothing new in New York, which has often been surprisingly regressive on issues of criminal justice and policing.

There were the infamous Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s that put generations of black and Latino New Yorkers in jail for minor offenses.

There was the “tough-on-crime” approach of the 1980s and early 1990s, epitomized in the infamous ad Donald Trump took out in this newspaper in 1989, after a jogger was raped in Central Park. “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back the Police!” it read. Five black and Latino teenagers were wrongly convicted of the crime and served between six and 13 years.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly used to issue dire warnings that sharply reducing police stops of pedestrians under a practice known as stop-and-frisk would lead to an increase in crime. Their predictions turned out to be bunk — stops have plummeted, while crime remains at record lows.

That’s history worth considering as the old foes of reform sing their familiar tune.

Governor Cuomo, legislative leaders and Mayor Bill de Blasio, all of whom supported the reforms, should stand proudly behind them.

Prosecutors and police unions trying to thwart the will of the voters and undermine the public’s trust in long-overdue reforms should instead get to work making the change.

Online: https://www.nytimes.com/

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Nov. 14

The Orange County Register on social media monitoring by law enforcement agencies:

Social media monitoring by law enforcement agencies has drawn scrutiny from a coalition of free speech and civil rights groups, raising important questions about privacy as well as oversight of the use of government power.

A statement released on Nov. 6 was signed by more than 50 organizations including the Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU, the Institute for Free Speech and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It cites harmful impacts from social media surveillance that should concern lawmakers and the public.

Of particular concern, activities protected by the First Amendment could be stifled or chilled by online surveillance. Local police and federal agencies have monitored social media to track political protests and events. “This information may be disseminated to other federal, state and local government agencies, which leads to further surveillance, watchlisting, unnecessary interactions with law enforcement, and more dire consequences, such as overreaching immigration enforcement,” the groups stated.

In one instance cited, the Boston Police Department used a monitoring tool to track particular terms and hashtags, including #BlackLivesMatter. The New York City Police Department has used online surveillance to track suspected gang members. Without adequate oversight, communities of color could be disproportionately or unfairly subjected to police scrutiny for engaging in constitutionally protected activity.

The public remains generally in the dark about these practices. One review of 157 law enforcement agencies using social media surveillance tools found that fewer than 15 percent had publicly available policies regarding the details of the agencies’ social media monitoring practices. While there is an argument to be made that specific investigative techniques should not be disclosed, the public is entitled to know if law enforcement agencies are collecting and retaining data on individuals. That’s the sort of thing that generally requires a warrant.

Once collected, data can be mined in the future, separated from its original context and aggregated with possibly unrelated data. Given the breadth and depth of information available from social media, the potential for misuse is concerning. Monitoring of social media can yield a picture of an individual’s travel, personal life, contacts, views, purchases and activities in general. The location data alone reveals more than most people may be comfortable sharing with a government database.

In 2016, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter changed their policies to end the practice of developers selling monitoring tools to law enforcement agencies. Companies such as Geofeedia had developed sophisticated mining techniques that collected data automatically and delivered it to clients. The policy shift followed an investigation by the ACLU, which published documents about the tracking of activists at protests in Baltimore in 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody, and in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

However, even without automated data mining, there are concerns about surveillance. The coalition letter warns that some law enforcement agencies have used fake accounts to engage people on social media as part of undercover investigations. This goes beyond the passive observation of public posts into a more troubling area of misrepresentation and deception, risking public trust.

Policymakers should examine the full range of social media use by law enforcement agencies and set boundaries. What may at first appear to be a useful tool for investigators can too quickly turn into a weapon of oppression.

Online: https://www.ocregister.com/