Unhooking smokers: The Food and Drug Administration last week took a first step toward requiring manufacturers to dramatically lower the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to a “minimally or non-addictive level,” drawing praise from public health advocates. Studies have found that, in addition to preventing people from becoming addicted, low-nicotine cigarettes would lead to more attempts to quit. At the same time, smokers might resort to buying cigarettes on the black market. Even factoring in that uncertainty, a significant nicotine reduction in cigarettes could, by 2060, prevent 16 million people from becoming smokers and save nearly 3 million lives, according to a new analysis by FDA researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“No statistical model can truly capture the full impact of this effort – including the joy from years of quality life gained with a loved one, or how much pain and suffering would be avoided for millions of families across the country,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a press release. “But what we’re learning about the significant public health promise of this approach leaves me encouraged and optimistic.”

A memo to investors by a senior analyst at Wells Fargo said changes aren’t likely to happen soon. Bonnie Herzog noted that the prospect of the FDA ultimately issuing a rule change is still “a big ‘if,'” and such a change would be subject to a years-long process and could be challenged in court.

  • Also: The FDA on Tuesday put out a call for public comment on a plan to regulate flavors in tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. Flavored tobacco has long been known to be attractive to children, Gottlieb said in a press release, and “there is no acceptable number of children using tobacco products.” When it comes to cigarettes, candy, fruit and spice flavorings already are banned, but not menthol. FairWarning reported in November about how some  municipalities, tired of waiting for federal action, were restricting sales of menthol cigarettes.

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Facebook under fire: Private data from more than 50 million Facebook users was obtained by a Republican-funded voter-profiling company that worked for the 2016 election of President Trump and in Britain on the “Brexit” campaign. In most cases, users did not give permission for their information to be shared, The New York Times and The Observer of London reported over the weekend. Facebook has maintained that the transfer of data does not constitute a breach, because the information was obtained by Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American professor at Cambridge University, under the premise of academic use and then improperly sold to the profiling company Cambridge Analytica. According to the Times, however, only 270,000 users had given consent for Kogan to harvest their information. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating, while lawmakers have called for hearings. The Guardian profiled whistleblower Chris Wylie. Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief information security officer, plans to leave the company. And a British TV station filmed executives of Cambridge Analytica saying they could use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians and that they have experience secretly influencing campaigns around the world.

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A first fatality for driverless cars: A self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a woman crossing an Arizona street, in the first fatality involving an autonomous vehicle, Reuters reports. Uber said it was suspending tests of the self-driving cars in Arizona, Pittsburgh and Toronto. The fatality occurred the same day a large coalition of consumer safety and public health organizations sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asking her to issue minimum safety standards for driverless cars, rather than the voluntary guidelines she has supported. The signers included representatives of the American Public Health Association, the Consumer Federation of America and the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, among others. (The Government Accountability Office issued a report last year saying the technology was simply not ready to handle the many variables of real-life roads.)

Democratic leaders in the Senate last week called for changes in a driverless cars bill that they said falls short on safety. The bill wouldn’t prohibit manufacturers of self-driving cars from requiring injury claims to be handled through arbitration, with proceedings typically held in secret, according to Matt McFarland of CNN. Matt Ford at The New Republic raised a pertinent question: “When a driverless car kills someone, who’s to blame?”

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‘Deadly Detention’: The number of beds at sites that house undocumented immigrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has grown fivefold since 1995. The Trump administration plans to add thousands more this year. A series by Capital & Main, an online public interest news organization, identified serious safety issues at many  sites and noted 179 deaths since 2003, many from causes that could have been prevented. Federal officials provide only minimal oversight of the facilities, operated by for-profit companies that “tend to run them like prisons and not as the civil detention facilities that the law says they are,” reporter Robin Urevich writes. Urevich tells the story of a man who killed himself while in solitary confinement after staff failed to provide needed mental health care. Also see the interactive map tracking deaths around the country.

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Court upholds award in Jeep fuel tank case: The Supreme Court of Georgia upheld a $40 million award to the family of a 4-year-old boy who was killed in 2012 when the Jeep Grand Cherokee he was riding in burst into flames, David Shepardson of Reuters reports. The vehicle’s fuel tank was located behind the rear axle of the vehicle, which caught fire when it was rear-ended. The risk was known to Chrysler, the court ruling said. A spokesman for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which makes Jeep, said the company was “considering our legal options.” The Center for Auto Safety praised the decision. But it noted that the boy and dozens of other people who have died in similar crashes involving Jeeps might be alive today if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had acted on the organization’s 2009 petition for a recall or on similar advice from the agency’s own experts in 2013.

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Bad, and not just for the birds: The Trump administration issued a legal decision in December revoking federal officials’ ability to take action under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act against companies that accidentally kill birds with oil pits, spills or other industrial hazards. Elizabeth Shogren writes for Reveal about how the change could play out for birds and other wildlife. (Not well.) In a letter opposing the change, former department officials from all administrations since the 1970s – and from both parties – said the law is about much more than the birds themselves. “How birds fare in the world indicates how all wildlife and habitat, and by extension human populations, will fare,” they wrote.

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Serious safety problems offshore: Surprise inspections by the U.S. Interior Department on about 40 offshore platforms and drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico found serious safety problems, including some that could be life-threatening, Eric Lipton reports in the New York Times. The inspections followed four accidents that the department had called “potentially catastrophic.” Earlier this month, Lipton wrote that some of the same companies lobbying the Trump administration to roll back safety measures adopted after 11 people died in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster had been cited in recent years for safety violations at a rate much higher than the industry average.

  • Also: A new California regulation requires hotels to identify hazards to housekeeping staff and provide training to avoid injury from activities such as lifting mattresses and pushing heavy carts. — Kraft Heinz Foods Company faces proposed penalties of $109,939 after federal investigators found it failed to provide necessary protections on a machine where an employee’s finger was partially amputated while clearing a jam. — Michael Foods, an egg processor in Nebraska, faces $188,464 in proposed penalties. Investigators found that a platform used to move a forklift between a loading dock and a trailer was not properly secured when it fell during maintenance, killing an employee. — Ohio auto parts maker Sunfield will pay a $1 million penalty as part of a settlement reached after investigators determined that accidents that left two employees seriously injured were preventable.

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A gender gap at Humana: Health insurer Humana will pay $2.5 million in back wages to resolve allegations of pay discrimination against 753 women who work at the Kentucky headquarters. Humana is a contractor with the Department of Defense. It was undergoing a routine compliance evaluation when the Department of Labor found that, in 2011 and 2012, the company paid women who worked as consultants, project managers and in other management positions less than men in those roles.

  • Also: JetBlue must reinstate a flight attendant who was fired after raising a concern about a possible safety violation. The company must also pay nearly $143,800 in back pay and damages.

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Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.

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