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Social Media Campaigns by Big Tobacco Spur Call for Investigation

There’s a new Marlboro Man, and she’s an Instagram influencer: Actually, there are many, according to a petition filed by public health advocacy groups asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate tobacco companies’ use of social media campaigns to lure young customers. “The tobacco companies are engaging in the same marketing tactics they used in the United States for decades to reach kids and young people–only now they use social media to reach an even wider unlimited audience of all ages to promote their brands and re-normalize tobacco use,” the petition reads. Sheila Kaplan of The New York Times explains how tobacco companies are directing “ambassadors,” paid and unpaid, to post words, images and hashtags meant to further their brands and the allure of smoking more generally. “What they are doing is a really effective way to get around existing laws to restrict advertising to young people,” said Robert V. Kozinets, who led a team examining the tobacco industry’s use of social media. Also this week, Kaplan and reporter Matt Richtel take a deep look at whether marketing practices by the e-cigarette company JUUL, now under investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have deliberately targeted teenagers. In June, a FairWarning story focused on sales of the JUUL device to teens.

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‘What happened at Camp Lejeune’: Lori Lou Freshwater grew up in Paradise Point, a neighborhood next to the North Carolina Marine Corps base at Camp Lejune. Her community’s drinking water was contaminated by chemicals from the base. Writing for Pacific Standard, Freshwater tells of the dramatic consequences that had for her family and how the military has failed to fully account for the damage done: “The chemical contamination can be linked to the deaths of my two baby brothers, Rusty and Charlie, and to my mom’s own difficult final years, when she was dying from two types of acute leukemia,” Freshwater writes. “My mother also suffered from mental illness, which was intensified—understandably—by our family’s brutal losses. Sometimes it seems that, behind me, there is nothing but inescapable grief.”

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Guns for schools:  The New York Times reports that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering using money earmarked for school enrichment – things like music, art and mental health programs – to purchase guns for schools. That could set a precedent as the first time the federal government has authorized the purchase of weapons without a congressional mandate. DeVos could tap a $1 billion fund that, reporter Erica L. Green writes, “is intended for the country’s poorest schools and calls for school districts to use the money toward three goals: providing a well-rounded education, improving school conditions for learning and improving the use of technology for digital literacy.” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, has introduced legislation to block school districts from using federal money to buy guns, but some Republicans have said they are hesitant to limit a school district’s flexibility in deciding how to use the money, Green reports.

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‘Shallow Waters’: The Rio Grande provides drinking water and irrigation for farmlands to a region along the Texas-Mexico border where 6 million people – and counting – live. A nine-part series by the Texas Observer and Quartz looks at the reality of a river in peril, as the Southwest becomes hotter and drier, and what the region demonstrates about potential border water crises around the world. Officials on both sides of the border have succeeded in working together to manage the water system, but their job is getting harder as drought and heat waves, exacerbated by climate change, become more intense. The series includes a look at what a border wall means for the flow of water and the increasing likelihood of a looming “megadrought.”

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Roadway deaths keep pace: U.S. traffic death numbers appear to be holding steady this year, even as cars are becoming safer. Roadway and highway fatalities during the first half of 2018 were on pace to total nearly 40,000 for the third year in a row, according to early figures. “The silver lining in those dark numbers is that the number of people dying each year in traffic collisions nationwide appears to be leveling off after two years of sharp increases,” David Schaper of NPR reports. Ken Kolosh, lead researcher for the National Safety Council, told Schaper that one positive change is that drivers seem to be interacting less with their cell phones, a sign that laws banning texting and talking on handheld devices while driving may be working.

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Legal threats for pipeline protesters: In the wake of the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, leaders in dozens of states have enacted new laws or signed executive orders that stiffen penalties for environmental activists demonstrating against fossil fuel projects, Nicholas Kusnetz reports for InsideClimate News. In some cases, states have expanded the definition of rioting or terrorism. Oklahoma’s governor signed a bill that calls for up to 10 years in prison and $100,000 in fines for anyone interfering with “critical infrastructure,” such as pipelines. Organizations supporting protesters can be fined up to $1 million. Oklahoma’s bill became a model for other states passing similar measures with support from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, Kusnetz wrote. Supporters said the measures do not block lawful protest. But, advocates say, trespassing and vandalism laws already dictate the legal limits of a protest, making the changes unnecessary. They’re concerned that the new laws will have a chilling effect.

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‘Breathing Fire’: The intensity of this year’s wildfires means much of the American West is struggling with poor air quality and spikes in respiratory illnesses. The smoke has prompted cancellations of outdoor events, including much of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which lost about $2 million because of the smoke this year, The New York Times reports. An air quality monitor in Seattle recorded the highest level of smoke in a one-hour period since monitoring began about two decades ago, David Kroman reports for Crosscut. EarthFix and Climate Central look at how the smoke this year and during longer, more ferocious wildfire seasons expected in years to come will cause declines in birth weight and billions of dollars in increased health care costs for treatment of people with respiratory illnesses.

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An indictment a long time coming: A Nebraska railroad services company has been indicted on 22 counts following a 2015 explosion that killed two workers and injured another. The charges include trying to deceive federal inspectors and cover up worker safety violations, and mishandling hazardous waste, Stuart Silverstein reports for FairWarning. Nebraska Railcar Cleaning Services’ long history of safety violations was highlighted in a 2016 FairWarning story about how slowly regulators at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration move to put companies into the agency’s “severe violator” program, even in extreme cases.

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