- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:


Aug. 15

From former Lackawanna County Commissioner Bob Cordaro to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, from former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fatah of Philadelphia, disgraced politicians hope to be rescued by an ill-considered 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The court reversed the federal conviction of former Virginia Bob McDonnell, who had been convicted of using the power of his office to help individuals who had given donations to his campaign and “gifts” to him. Justices found that McDonnell’s conduct - steering the state machinery in behalf of favored interests - did not amount to “official acts.” The ruling vastly narrowed that definition, excluding almost anything short of issuing specific executive orders or passing laws to help suitors.

Now convicted and accused politicians who have greased the skids for their suitor’s claim that they did not engage in “official acts.”

So far the courts have applied it to some cases but not others. Silver’s conviction was reversed based on the McDonnell decision. But other courts have ruled against defendants.

Perhaps the greatest impact is that some prosecutors have refrained from conducting corruption investigations, seeking indictments or making arrests due to the uncertainty created by the McDonnell ruling.

Congress should clarify that corruption is about influence rather than the execution of an “official act.” Politicians who exercise it for interests who grease them should have to answer for it.

—The (Scranton) Times-Tribune

Online: https://bit.ly/2x522DY



Aug. 13

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wants to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes and eventually wean Americans off them entirely.

“The overwhelming amount of death and disease attributable to tobacco is caused by addiction to cigarettes - the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said late last month.

The same day it announced its intention to draft rules to reduce the level of nicotine in cigarettes, the agency said it was putting off a 2018 deadline by which e-cigarette makers must seek FDA authorization for the sale of their products.

The FDA said the latter move, which some health advocates criticized, is aimed at keeping a product on the market that helps some people quit smoking.

Among the critics of putting off the FDA’s plan - which would delay requiring its approval of vaping products, cigars, pipe tobacco and hookah tobacco by three or four years - is the American Lung Association.

“The bottom line is if the FDA has the science to make changes to tobacco products that will improve the public health, they need to act immediately,” Erika Sward, the association’s assistant vice president for national advocacy, told the Reading Eagle.

There is something to that argument. Cigarette smoking is the nation’s leading cause of preventable disease and death, killing more than 480,000 Americans annually, with treatment of related illnesses costing more than $300 billion per year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Gottlieb’s comprehensive approach has support in the health community, and appears to be the right approach.

“The big picture here is that cigarettes as we know them could be phased out and e-cigarettes could be a bridge for people to not use cigarettes,” Josh Sharfstein, a deputy FDA commissioner in the Obama administration and now a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Washington Post.

Sharfstein called Gottlieb’s announcement an exciting moment because it would link the FDA’s policies on e-cigarettes and cigarettes.

And Gottlieb is clearly concerned about the potentially harmful effects of e-cigarettes on young people.

On Tuesday, the FDA said it plans to add vaping to its anti-nicotine pitch to teens.

Citing a recent statistic showing that more than 2 million middle school and high school students in the United States were using e-cigarettes, Gottlieb said it shows “the troubling reality that they are the most commonly-used tobacco product among youth.”

Anti-vaping messaging will be added to the FDA’s anti-tobacco The Real Cost campaign beginning in the fall, and a campaign aimed at getting young people to avoid vaping and e-cigarettes will begin next year. The education effort will include new ads to let young people know of the potential for nicotine to rewire their brains, possibly creating cravings leading to addiction.

While he is among those worried about the delay in regulations on e-cigarettes and cigars, Dr. Uday Dasika of the Reading Health Physician Network agrees with the FDA on the danger of getting hooked on cigarettes.

“It’s a very, very addictive habit once you get started,” said Dasika, a cardiothoracic surgeon. “I’m passionate about seeing young people not start.”

Agreed. Let this addictive and dangerous habit end as soon as possible.

—Reading Eagle

Online: https://bit.ly/2uQitDk



Aug. 14

In 2003, a mid-level manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology named Bill Burr created a template for generating what he insisted would be nearly impossible-to-break computer passwords.

The formula that millions of computer users adopted resulted in cumbersome and unwieldy passwords, but it was that unwieldiness that made access to the data so much more difficult.

Mr. Burr was a big proponent of awkward words featuring a random letter, a number, at least one uppercase letter and a special character like an exclamation point or a dollar sign in the mix that would require hitting the shift key. He believed a password of this complexity would be enough to frustrate ever inventive hackers and protect personal and company data from theft or snooping, especially if the password was also changed every 90 days.

It was annoying, but federal agencies and many companies compelled their employees to follow the protocol because they believed it would protect their data. Millions of people accessed their personal computers the same way. It has become the status quo everywhere.

Recently, Mr. Burr, who is 72, did something that many who have achieved his fame and notoriety refuse to do:

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, he admitted he was wrong - and that his formula for a hack-free existence was often counterproductive.

The NIST has revised Mr. Burr’s guidelines and now recommends that users drop the password expiration element and don’t worry about swapping it out every 90 days, unless there has been evidence of a security breach. It also recommends the elimination of special characters.

Instead of using awkward words, NIST now recommends using easy-to-remember phrases consisting of at least four words written as one word. Holding on to at least one uppercase and one number wouldn’t hurt, but isn’t mandatory.

Mr. Burr based his original guidelines on a very small set of data and a white paper written in the mid-1980s. It was state-of-the-art information at the time, but didn’t reflect what millions of online users would do once the floodgates opened in the 1990s and 2000s.

Because hackers post hundreds of millions of stolen passwords online, NIST can see what tools hackers use to steal this information and how. Mr. Burr’s previous advice, though somewhat effective, wasn’t the ultimate deterrent to hackers he hoped it would be. The unwieldiness of the process caused people to make mistakes that compromised their security.

Mr. Burr looked at the data and learned from his mistake. We can learn from his humility and finally do something unprecedented until now - make memorable passwords that work.

—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Online: https://bit.ly/2uJykHK



Aug. 13

What’s not to like about the Pennsylvania Senate’s attempt to balance the state’s out-of-kilter budget? Let us count the ways.

Last month the Senate tried to accomplish what the House could not, approving a bill to fill the missing revenue side of the budget. Both houses approved the spending side in time for the June 30 budget deadline.

That’s correct: The state of Pennsylvania is paying its bills with no constitutional authority to raise money to do so. Gov. Tom Wolf allowed this devil’s bargain to become law without his signature, thinking it would be preferable to a long budget impasse or government shutdown.

The problem isn’t just that the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature don’t see eye-to-eye on budget fixes. Senate and House leaders, who are calling the shots with no input from minority Democrats, are at loggerheads over how to plug a $2 billion budget deficit.

In the meantime, state Treasurer Joe Torsella has secured a $750 million line of credit to allow the state to keep functioning after the last dollar flows out. That bottoming-out is expected to occur soon.

At least the Senate has a revenue plan, but it nibbles around the edges of a recurring structural budget deficit. Here’s what the bill would do:

Enact a severance tax on shale gas drilling, something that has been needed for years. But it would raise only $100 million a year and comes with an irresponsible trade-off - outsourcing the permitting process for new gas wells, a sop to the industry that would bypass the state Department of Environmental Protection.

- Enact a 5.7 percent tax on consumers’ natural gas bills.

- Raise existing consumer taxes on electric and phone service.

- Impose the 6 percent sales tax on online transactions from Amazon, eBay and others.

- Borrow up to $1.3 billion against future payments from a multi-state settlement with tobacco companies.

- Anticipate $200 million from a gambling expansion, authorizing new “satellite” casinos around the state.

That’s not all. Senators voted to give the Legislature the power to borrow money in the event of future budget standoffs or shutdowns - essentially, to ensure lawmakers and their staffs could continue to be paid if the money runs out.

Borrow. Tax. Gamble.

Some degree of higher taxation is unavoidable, given a $2 billion deficit, but House leaders are already saying some Senate ideas - notably tax increases on gas, phone and electrical service - are unacceptable. Majority Leader Dave Reed says House Republicans prefer other sources of revenue - privatizing the state liquor system and legalizing video poker in bars and clubs. The Senate says video poker is a non-starter.

Postponing the agony and borrowing to pay expenses carries a serious price tag for everyone: Rating companies have warned that Pennsylvania is headed for a credit downgrade if it continues to use smoke and mirrors to get through the fiscal year. That means higher costs to borrow against revenues - you know, the ones the state does not have, or is about to run out of.

Instead of concerning themselves with future budget strife without paydays, legislators should remain in session until they adopt a complete budget, with revenues, as they are constitutionally obligated to do.

—Easton Express-Times

Online: https://bit.ly/2v27Son



Aug. 14

The opioid addiction crisis figures as the most pressing drug problem plaguing Erie and the nation.

Not that long ago, fears and resources focused on methamphetamine.

Prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, the dangerous stimulant re-emerged here in the mid-1990s. Authorities blamed a Titusville man, Roger Coulter, who they said learned how to produce, or “cook,” meth in the western U.S., then brought his know-how back to northwestern Pennsylvania.

Meth is a menace. It can be produced at home or on the move with what are known as one-pot labs. Meth “cooks” combine household chemicals that explode if mishandled. The manufacture generates hazardous waste. The drug addles brains and induces psychosis.

Titusville Police Chief Gary Thomas, upon his retirement in 2016, recalled addicts he’d encountered.

“People just lived in squalor. They didn’t care what they ate; they didn’t care if they ate; they didn’t care if they fed their children; they didn’t care about housing. All they cared about was their next high,” he told Erie Times-News reporter Tim Hahn.

New regulations in the mid-2000s, especially controls on the sale of cold pills that contain a meth ingredient, pseudoephedrine, helped curb the problem.

But it never went away. Hahn has delivered a steady drumbeat of reports of meth raids, meth fires and explosions, and meth-related child neglect. In 2013, two girls, ages 2 and 5, were removed from a suspected lab in Washington Township, suffering from open sores and breathing problems.

In early 2016, investigators told Hahn that rather than large home-based labs, dealers were favoring the one-pot method and ratcheting up production. The Clandestine Laboratory Response Team at that time had responded to about 30 incidents over the space of six months.

As new charges announced Thursday in Erie by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro indicate, this deplorable trade persists. Fifteen people have been accused of making meth over a two-year period in Erie County. In one case, investigators found what appeared to be a meth-cooking site in a hole behind Elk Valley Elementary School.

In July, NBC News reported that several states, including neighboring Ohio, were witnessing a meth resurgence “in the shadows of the opioid epidemic.” The deadly heroin and opioid crisis deserves every shred of attention it receives. We have no doubt local investigators so familiar with the meth trade will continue to work hard to root out meth, along with heroin.

The public must be alert to the sights and telltale chemical odors of meth labs. Any warnings to kids about opioids should include warnings about meth.

The last thing this region needs is a renewed meth epidemic piggybacking on the uphill battle against opioids.

—Erie Times News

Online: https://bit.ly/2wQu5rD



Aug. 14

“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” is a World War II-vintage expression that basically means “Take a break.” It’s appropriate to invoke here because allowing residents of public housing to smoke is the product of a bygone era.

We are glad the housing authority has acknowledged as much.

“Due to the increased risk of fire, increased maintenance costs, and the health effects of secondhand and third-hand smoke, the LCHA is adopting this Smoke-Free Housing Policy, which prohibits smoking, i.e., the use of prohibited tobacco products and electronic cigarettes, in any interior or exterior common areas,” the authority’s policy reads.

Smoking is banned in restaurants, hotels, apartment buildings and elsewhere for the same reasons. It’s about time public housing falls in line.

As LNP’s Heather Stauffer reported, many large employers in Lancaster County have implemented smoke-free policies, and Lancaster-based HDC (Housing Development Corporation) MidAtlantic in 2014 made smoke-free its more than 3,300 units of affordable rental housing for low-income families, senior citizens and individuals with disabilities. It evicted a tenant for repeatedly violating the smoking ban.

Of course, the local authority’s hand was forced. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that all public housing agencies implement smoke-free policies by July 31, 2018. But sooner is better.

A 2014 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that prohibiting smoking in all government-subsidized housing would save an estimated $497 million a year in health care and housing costs.

Stauffer spoke with residents of the Farnum Street East public housing complex.

“I think it’s good,” said Hendryx Torres of the ban, “because not everybody smokes, and those who do should do it outside.”

Residents will be able to smoke only if they are at least 25 feet from the building. But as Stauffer reported, that will be a big change for those who smoke inside or on the building’s balconies.

This is not the time to get into the pathology of nicotine addiction but it’s fair to assume that dedicated smokers will attempt to run afoul of the new policy.

It’s one thing to have a policy; enforcing it is another matter.

To that end, the housing authority offers guidance to residents:

“If a resident smells tobacco smoke anywhere in the building or observes the use of a smokeless tobacco product, they should report this to the office as soon as possible. Management will seek the source of the tobacco use and take appropriate action.”

This is, and has been, a problem throughout the country for too long. According to HUD, there are about 1.2 million public housing units across the nation, and as of 2015 only about 228,000 were smoke-free.

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke,” the agency said. “In addition, research has clearly demonstrated that in multi-unit buildings, tobacco smoke travels from smokers’ units into the units of nonsmokers.”

Lancaster Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Schellhamer told LNP the authority’s approach to enforcement will be “gentle,” with lots of warnings.

Schellhamer also told Stauffer that the transition to a nonsmoking environment started about a year ago, including distribution of educational materials and the offer of smoking-cessation classes.

This policy is necessary for the well-being of all involved. It’s going to take a combination of enforcement, residents’ vigilance, education and communication to make it work.

Clearing the air is never a bad thing.


Online: https://bit.ly/2vJLa6q

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