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Vapers would pay more under City Council proposal to expand Omaha’s tobacco tax

Vaping would cost a little more in Omaha than surrounding communities if the City Council expands the city’s tobacco tax this month.

Council President Chris Jerram has proposed erasing the existing city ordinance’s exemption for nicotine delivery devices.

Mayor Jean Stothert told The World-Herald last week that she supports extending the tax to vaping for public health and tax fairness reasons.

The proposed change would add the city’s 3% occupation tax on tobacco products to e-cigarettes and other vaping products.

City finance officials estimate that expanding the tobacco tax to vaping would raise about $1 million more than the $3.5 million to $3.7 million a year it raises now.

Vaping retailers said they plan to fight the tax. The public hearing on the issue is Oct. 22.

Jerram said his goal is to prevent a new generation of young people from vaping and getting addicted to nicotine.

Public health experts at the Mayo Clinic and John’s Hopkins University have said that young people first exposed to nicotine by vaping are more likely than their unexposed peers to use tobacco products.

Jerram also said he wants to apply the tobacco tax fairly. The city’s tax law shouldn’t treat people who vape nicotine any differently from the people who smoke it, he said. Local smokers pay the tax.

“It’s the kids that have really driven me on this,” he said. “And equity.”

But people who sell and use vaping products say the city is targeting them unfairly. E-cigarette retailers say they don’t like to see their product treated like smoking because it’s less harmful. They market to smokers trying to quit.

Nebraska recorded its first vaping-related death in May, state health officials said. At least a dozen others have been reported nationally.

Many who died had vaporized cartridges of liquid that contained THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, not nicotine, federal health officials say.

Local retailers, who defend the safety of vaping nicotine, say they do not buy Omaha’s public health argument. They say the tax won’t deter young people.

“I think the city needs money,” said Sarah Linden, who owns Generation V, a chain of vaping stores with outlets in Omaha and Lincoln.

Jerram said he had not yet earmarked any purpose for the additional revenue.

Jerram said he hopes to persuade Stothert and his council colleagues to aim some of the funds toward local research on the effects of vaping.

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Research on the public health effects of vaping is in its infancy. Much of what’s available has been funded by private companies with interest in the results.

The national push to restrict access to e-cigarettes and vaping is often tied to previous research on the effectiveness of tobacco taxes.

Academics who study those taxes found that increasing the price of an addictive product can shrink the pool of young people who try it out.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center has cited research showing that a 10% increase in cigarette prices reduced youth smoking by 6.5%.

But there is a reality about taxing vaping that cigarettes don’t face, Linden said. People can legally buy vaping products online, she said, and they will.

Or they’ll drive across city and state lines to save money, as they do for cigarettes, she said.

Eric Johnson, who owns local shop Caterpillar Vapes, said a 3% tax might not be what drives people away from Omaha businesses.

“The bigger issue is once you get a city tax, you get into a state tax, then you can reach a critical juncture,” he said.

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha

As first harvest nears, the future of hemp in Nebraska is still hazy

PLATTSMOUTH — Inside a climate-controlled greenhouse screened off by trees from U.S. Highway 75 grows a crop that some say could become a savior for Nebraska farmers.

The nearly 284 hemp plants — affectionately called “my girls” by grower Annette Wiles because they’re all female plants — are part of a modest pilot project authorized by the state this year to see if the pungent, stalky plant that looks and smells like marijuana can become a viable commercial crop.

Wiles and her husband, Bruce, said that three months’ experience with their “girls” has taught them that the plants can be temperamental.

“It’s actually quite challenging to grow,” said Bruce Wiles, a former traditional farmer who operates the state’s largest hops farm with his wife just outside of Plattsmouth.

“They’re girls,” his wife joked.

The Wiles farm was among 10 scattered across the state that were selected, via a lottery, to try growing hemp, a crop that was plentiful in Nebraska decades ago. The towering stands of “ditch weed” that populate the state’s roadside ditches and stream banks are remnants of that.

But it appears, as the first harvest approaches, that growers and regulators still have a lot of learn about this budding crop.

The 10 selected hemp farmers didn’t get to plant a crop until late June — long after the normal planting time — resulting in stunted plants. Some blamed the delay on the state, which they maintain has been dragging its feet in allowing hemp cultivation. Then there was the cool, rainy weather to contend with, as well as unexpected pests.

And the Wileses — who defend the state’s slow approach — said hemp growing isn’t a simple matter.

For instance they just recently repotted their 2-foot-high plants — four varieties specially bred in Colorado for maximum production of CBD oil — after discovering that their hemp plants didn’t grow well in the thick compost they use for hops. Now, they’re applying artificial light 24 hours a day in hopes of harvesting their first crop in January.

Still, the Wileses say that for the right growers, hemp, just like hops, has a bright future in Nebraska.

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“If people don’t get on board now, they’re going to miss out,” Annette Wiles said, mentioning a recent meeting they attended in Iowa of prospective hemp growers that drew 800 farmers, who paid $200 each to learn about the industry.

Annette Wiles is already a user of a cream infused with the hemp byproduct CBD (or cannabidiol) that she swears is reducing back pain. And just like brewers like to use hops grown locally, she thinks consumers will embrace “local” hemp for things like creams, flavoring for beer and even as an alternative to tobacco.

“There’s so many great effects and products that we can get from hemp production,” Bruce Wiles said.

After years of discussions about allowing cultivation of hemp in Nebraska, the U.S. Congress cleared the way by legalizing it in the 2018 farm bill. That prompted the Nebraska Legislature to pass a law this spring allowing cultivation to begin.

By law, hemp must have less than 0.3% THC (the high-inducing chemical in marijuana) to be legal. Anything above that is still an illegal drug. That has caused confusion among prosecutors and law enforcement officers about discerning between legal hemp and illegal pot. The Wileses, to make sure they’re growing legal hemp, purchased a boombox-sized machine to test the THC content.

Nationwide, hemp growing is expanding rapidly. Vote Hemp, a national organization that advocates for hemp farming, estimated that about 233,000 acres of hemp was planted this year, about three times what was cultivated in 2018. Forty-six states have legalized cultivation of hemp, with at least 34 states licensing growers to produce hemp for clothing, paper, oil and medicinal purposes.

Some advocates criticize Nebraska for allowing only 10 growers this year, out of 176 who applied, and think that the state is falling behind on a tremendous opportunity.

“It’s not a miracle crop,” said Andrew Bish, whose company in Giltner produces hemp-harvesting equipment. “But the reality is that Nebraska farmers need some economic relief and need some options, and this is a real viable option.”

Bish said his company has sold hemp equipment in 30 states, but he joked that all of his spending on hotel bills is not in Nebraska, but in states like Kansas, Oregon and Colorado, that have been more aggressive in approving hemp cultivation.

He said he has added four new employees to keep up with demand and expects his sales of hemp harvesting machines to double in 2020. But Bish said he’s also heard companies say they’re hesitant to locate hemp-processing plants in Nebraska because progress has been so slow in allowing research and planting.

“In Nebraska, there’s so much uncertainty,” he said. “That’s a big signal to investors to stay away.”

State Agriculture Director Steve Wellman pushed back on the criticism.

He said states typically begin slowly with hemp cultivation. And he maintained that there’s still too much uncertainty about hemp growing, processing and marketing to jump all in.

“It’s still a young business. It’s not a commodity yet. The market demand is still hard to measure,” Wellman said. “There’s still a lot to learn.”

Nationally, there have been stories about farmers getting bad seed that includes unwanted male seed. Because there are no federally approved pesticides, crops must be weeded by hand, making it much more labor-intensive. And Wellman said he’s heard of producers growing a crop without first lining up a buyer and being stuck with their hemp. Some unscrupulous buyers have backed out of contracts, he said.

With seed costing between $1,000 to $2,500 per acre, Annette Wiles said it’s important to know you’re dealing with reputable producers.

One irritant to hemp advocates is that Nebraska, unlike some other states, hasn’t yet submitted its hemp regulations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval. The USDA can take up to 60 days to approve state plans, which raises concerns that growers in Nebraska will again get a late start planting crops in 2020.

“It’s just amazing how slow the bureaucracy can be,” said Bill Achord of the Nebraska Hemp Association.

But Wellman said that it doesn’t make sense for the state to submit its plans until it knows what the USDA will allow. The USDA still hasn’t issued federal regulations, but by state law, Nebraska must submit its plan by Dec. 31, regardless of what the USDA does.

That, Wellman said, may present “a timing issue” again in 2020. He added that it was too soon to speculate about whether Nebraska would allow unlimited hemp licenses next year or a limited number, as in 2019.

As far as the potential of hemp in the state, he said that Nebraska has proved to have ideal growing conditions but that growing it for fiber and seed appears to provide the most promise. Growing hemp for CBD, Wellman said, would be much more expensive because it would require costly greenhouses to avoid cross-pollination with low-CBD wild hemp.

Bish, the equipment maker, said his experiment this year with growing “heirloom” hemp from seed gathered near his farm didn’t go well. Wet weather meant he couldn’t plant till late June, and his crop was stunted. Still, he said, hemp grows well in Nebraska and can produce four times the profit of corn. It would be a good crop to rotate with corn and beans.

Achord, the hemp association president, said the state needs to attract a company to process the hemp into fiber, thus reducing transportation costs for producers. But overall, he said hemp could provide a profitable alternative for farmers, who are struggling to make money on the traditional crops of corn and beans.

“Within five years, we’ll be raising a lot of hemp,” Achord said.

Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska

On Columbus Day, exploring the shifting story of once-revered figure

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The image and story of Christopher Columbus, the 15th century navigator who began European incursions into the Americas, have changed in the U.S. over the decades.

Columbus was an obscure figure until his adventures were revitalized in the 1800s. By the 1990s, a new generation of Native American activists blamed the navigator for launching centuries of indigenous genocide.

With Columbus Day falling on Monday in the U.S. — and now being called Indigenous Peoples' Day in some states — here's a look at how views of Christopher Columbus have changed over the years:


Born in the Republic of Genoa (now Italy), Columbus took part in several voyages in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas as a teenager and later participated in expeditions to Africa. Like Aristotle and

Amid chaos, Trump orders pullout of U.S. forces from northern Syria

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States appears to be heading toward a full military withdrawal from Syria amid growing chaos, cries of betrayal and signs that Turkey's invasion could fuel a broader war.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that President Donald Trump had directed U.S. troops in northern Syria to begin pulling out "as safely and quickly as possible." He did not say that Trump ordered troops to leave Syria, but that seemed likely to be the next step in a combat zone growing more unstable by the hour.

Esper, interviewed on two TV news shows, said the administration was considering its options.

"We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation," Esper said.

This seemed likely to herald the end of a five-year effort to partner with Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters to ensure a lasting defeat of the Islamic State. Hundreds of Islamic State supporters escaped a holding camp amid clashes between invading Turkish-led forces and Kurdish fighters, and analysts said an Islamic State resurgence seemed more likely, just months after Trump declared the extremists defeated.

The U.S. has had about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to combat the Islamic State. The Pentagon previously had pulled about 30 of those troops from the Turkish attack zone along the border. With an escalation of violence, a widening of the Turkish incursion and the prospect of a deepening conflict, all U.S. forces along the border will now follow that move. It was unclear where they would go.

The Pentagon chief did not say U.S. troops are leaving Syria entirely. The only other U.S. presence in Syria is at Tanf garrison, near Syria's eastern border with Jordan. The U.S. and coalition troops there are not involved in the Kurd mission, and so it seems highly unlikely that the 1,000 being moved from the north would go to Tanf.

Critics say the U.S. has betrayed the Kurds by pulling back in the face of Turkey's invasion, but Esper said the administration was left with little choice once President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump a week ago that he was going ahead with a military offensive. Esper said the Kurds have been good partners, "but at the same time, we didn't sign up to fight the Turks on their behalf."

The Kurds then turned to the Syrian government and Russia for military assistance, further complicating the battlefield.

Late Sunday, Syrian government troops began moving toward towns near the Turkish border under a deal struck with Syrian Kurds.

The announcement by the Syrian Democratic Forces that they had reached an agreement with the Iranian and Russian-backed government of President Bashar Assad further undermined the prospect of any continued U.S. presence in the country. The deal brings forces loyal to Assad back into towns and cities that have been under Kurdish control for seven years.

The deal followed three days of negotiations brokered by Russia between the Syrian government and the SDF, which had reached the conclusion that it could no longer count on the United States, its chief ally for the past five years in the fight against the Islamic State, according to a Kurdish intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the news media.

The prospect of enhancing the Syrian government's position on the battlefield and inviting Russia to get more directly involved is seen by Trump's critics as a major mistake. But he tweeted that it shouldn't matter.

"Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other," he wrote. "Let them!"

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump is weakening America. 'To be clear, this administration's chaotic and haphazard approach to policy by tweet is endangering the lives of U.S. troops and civilians," Menendez said in a statement. "The only beneficiaries of this action are ISIS, Iran and Russia."

The fast-moving developments were a further unraveling of U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Syria, and they highlighted an extraordinary breakdown in relations between the United States and Turkey, NATO allies for decades. Turkish troops have often fought alongside American troops, including in the Korean War and in Afghanistan.

Asked whether he thought Turkey would deliberately attack American troops in Syria, Esper said, "I don't know whether they would or wouldn't."

He cited an incident on Friday in which a small number of U.S. troops fell under artillery fire at an observation post in the north. Esper called that an example of "indiscriminate fire" coming close to Americans, adding that it was unclear whether that was an accident.

Esper disputed the notion that the U.S. could have stopped Turkey from invading in the first place. He said Erdogan had made clear he was going to launch his incursion "regardless of what we did."

Strongly critical of the Turks, Esper said "the arc of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible." He added: "I mean, they are spinning out of the Western orbit, if you will. We see them purchasing Russian arms, cuddling up to President Putin. We see them doing all these things that, frankly, concern us."

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said the U.S. and its NATO partners should consider expelling Turkey from the alliance. "How do you have a NATO ally who's in cahoots with the Russians, when the Russians are the adversaries of NATO?"

In explaining Trump's decision to withdraw from northern Syria, Esper cited two weekend developments.

"In the last 24 hours, we learned that they (the Turks) likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned — and to the west," he said.

The U.S. also has come to believe that the Kurds are attempting to "cut a deal" with the Syrian army and Russia to counter the invading Turks, he said. As a result, Trump "directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria," Esper said.

Trump, in a tweet Sunday, said: "Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made. Why are they not asking for a Declaration of War?"

Esper said he would not discuss a timeline for the U.S. pullback but said it would be done "as safely and quickly as possible."

The Pentagon had said before the operation began that the U.S. military would not support it, and the U.S. pulled about 30 special operations troops out of observation posts along the invasion route on the Syrian border to keep them out of harm's way. The Turkish offensive initially covered an area along the border about 77 miles wide and about 19 miles deep. Esper said it has since grown wider and deeper.

Esper said he was aware of reports of hundreds of Islamic State prisoners escaping as a result of the Turkish invasion and of atrocities being committed against Syrian Kurds by members of a Turkish-supported Syrian Arabmilitia.

"It gets worse by the hour," Esper said. "These are all the exact things" that U.S. officials warned Erdogan would likely happen by ignoring U.S. urgings not to invade northern Syria.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin held out the possibility of quick action to impose economic sanctions on Turkey, a move that Trump has repeatedly threatened if the Turks were to push too far into Syria.

"If we go to maximum pressure, which we have the right to do — at a moment's notice the president calls me up and tells me — we will do this," Mnuchin said. "We could shut down all U.S. dollar transactions with the entire government of Turkey. ... That is something we may do, absolutely."

Esper was interviewed on CBS's "Face the Nation" and "Fox News Sunday."Mnuchin appeared on ABC's "This Week," and Engel was on NBC's "Meet the Press."

This report includes material from the Washington Post.