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Vaping is now taxed like smoking. Can Omaha expect more regulations on par with cigarettes?

While the Omaha City Council grabbed local headlines last week by passing the city’s first tax on vaping products, the council is far from the only group putting heat on electronic cigarettes.

Across the country and Nebraska, a growing number of discussions — and actions — have been focused on putting electronic devices on par with traditional cigarettes when it comes to regulation and taxation.

Indeed, the pace of those efforts has made earlier moves to regulate tobacco — and exposure to tobacco — look like a slow burn by comparison.

Public health officials and anti-tobacco advocates say they don’t want to see a new generation becoming addicted to nicotine after decades of declines in tobacco use.

“Vaping is an especially important issue right now, considering the number of youth using them,” said Brooklyn Larimore, president of the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition.

According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association based on the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 27.5% of high school and 10.5% of middle school students reported current use of e-cigarettes in 2019. That’s roughly one in four high school students, up from about one in 10 three years ago. Cigarette use was just below 6%.

The Youth Risk Behavioral Survey indicates that in 2016, 17% of Douglas County youths reported currently using electronic vapor products, and 32% said they used them at some point. That’s compared with 24% and 45% nationally. But county health officials cautioned that the Douglas County numbers can’t be generalized across all public school students because responses were too low. They say they are working on ways to improve survey responses.

A spate of vaping-related lung injuries and deaths has added to the urgency. As of Wednesday, 2,290 cases of lung injury associated with vaping, including 47 deaths, had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Nebraska, the tally stands at 14 cases of illness, with two more under investigation, and one death.

Larimore and others say they know how to effectively prevent smoking. Bans on tobacco use in public places reduce exposure, taxes have been shown to put cigarettes beyond the means of young people and cessation efforts help people kick the habit.

“We need to do those same things with e-cigarettes,” she said.

Nationally, efforts are even more wide-ranging and fast-moving. On Friday, health advocates urged President Donald Trump to proceed with a federal ban on most flavored e-cigarette products. It’s a step several states already have taken, citing their attraction for young people. Last week, the American Medical Association called for a ban on all vaping products not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

For those who haven’t followed the issue closely, we explore what’s new, what might follow and what’s driving such efforts, as well as some objections.

Age and air

This year, State Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island pushed through a measure that on Jan. 1 will raise the age for Nebraskans to buy and use cigarettes and vaping products from 18 to 19.

Quick said he had wanted to raise the age to 21 and add e-cigarettes to Nebraska’s 2008 Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in most public indoor spaces, including workplaces.

He said he’s not sure that he will be able to secure support to further raise the age limit. But he is working on legislation that would include vaping in the clean air act.

“To me, it’s preventing exposure to people who don’t really want to be exposed,” he said.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already added e-cigarettes to their comprehensive smoke-free laws, according to the American Lung Association. Nearby states that have made the move include South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Colorado.

Grand Island took the same step earlier this fall, building on an existing clean indoor air ordinance that prohibited smoking in public places. The Lincoln City Council is scheduled to give first-round consideration to a similar measure Monday night.

But other jurisdictions, Kearney for one, have elected to wait for the state. Last week, the Douglas County Board of Health opted to hold off on recommending that the Omaha City Council pass an ordinance like Grand Island’s.

A number of communities, including Lincoln, have also banned both tobacco and e-cigarette use in some or all of their parks.

David Humm, division manager for health promotion and outreach in the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, said tobacco-free outdoor spaces are an evidence-based way to support quitting. Officials have seen less cigarette butt litter since the measure took effect in 2012 and higher compliance, as measured by fewer complaints each year.

Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, said she believes that the Legislature will act.

“I think the Legislature is responsive to some of the concerns of constituents,” she said.

The state’s Clean Indoor Air Act specifically targets secondhand smoke, based on the conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke. Jeff Soukup, community health educator at Tobacco Free Nebraska, said e-cigarettes were so new that they weren’t added to the act.

Pour and other public health officials said there’s not enough research yet to determine whether secondhand vaping emissions pose the same risks.

But they don’t want to wait to find out, as they did with smoking.

In 2016, the U.S. surgeon general reported that secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes contain nicotine; flavorings such as diacetyl, a chemical linked to severe lung disease; heavy metals such as tin, nickel and lead; and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, as well as fine particles.

“While the research is still not complete,” said Teresa Anderson, director of Nebraska’s Central District Health Department, “what we’re seeing is there are harmful chemicals in the vapor that is exhaled when someone vapes. And we don’t know enough about it to consider it to be safe.”

Soukup noted that the surgeon general’s report recommended adding e-cigarettes to clean air laws as one step communities could take to address the rapid rise in youth vaping.

“If we’re going to see change happen, it’s going to be a communitywide effort and a comprehensive approach,” he said.

But former State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who has been lobbying on behalf of e-cigarette retailers, said it’s “absolute nonsense” to compare secondhand vapor with secondhand smoke.

E-cigarette vapor dissipates so quickly, he said, that a bystander would have to be face to face with the user to be exposed to it. Some speak of the harmful elements in it, he said. But he questioned whether they’re present in harmful quantities.

“It’s surrendering to hysteria to add it to the Clean Indoor Air Act,” he said.

But a local lung specialist said the unanswered questions are cause for caution.

“The takeaway ends up being we don’t know what it’s going to do,” said Dr. Adam Wells, a pulmonologist with the Methodist Health System. “We’ve got to be careful, especially for our young people.”

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Licenses and taxes

A separate measure the Legislature adopted requires vape sellers to register for the same tobacco license as those vending traditional tobacco, effective Sept. 1.

Donna Waller, Omaha’s city treasurer, said her staff has identified about 100 e-cigarette outlets that don’t already have tobacco licenses.

Another measure introduced by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha would increase the state’s tax on tobacco and vaping products. The tax on cigarettes would increase from 64 cents to $2.14 a pack. The tax on cigars and vapes would go from 20% to 65%, an increase consistent with that for cigarettes. It would not apply to products sold online. Most of the revenue would go toward Medicaid expansion and cancer research.

Currently, consumers pay sales tax on vaping products but not the tobacco tax.

The tax expanded by the Omaha City Council is the city’s 3% occupation tax. Cavanaugh said her bill, now in the Revenue Committee, would not preclude cities from collecting such taxes.

“It’s my hope that we start taking it more seriously,” she said. “When vaping first started happening, it was viewed as a healthier alternative. We’re finding with time and research that that’s not necessarily the case.”

Lautenbaugh said applying the tobacco tax to vaping products would just push e-cigarette users to buy online, hurting Nebraska businesses. Consumers can buy vaping products and cigars online, but not cigarettes.

Cavanaugh’s staff said she would be open to taxing products sold online as well.

Cessation

In another sign of the times, programs are emerging that specifically address teens and vaping.

Susie Moore, an advanced practice registered nurse at Nebraska Medicine’s Nicotine Dependence Clinic, said they are seeing some parents bring kids in for cessation treatment. “I think we’ll see more,” she said.

Nationally, the Truth Initiative, which focuses on ending tobacco use, offers a free mobile program called This Is Quitting aimed at helping young people quit vaping.

Iowa is one of nine states collaborating with provider National Jewish Health to offer the teen-focused tobacco and vaping cessation program called My Life, My Quit. Iowa teens can text or call toll-free at 855-891-9989 or visit mylifemyquit.com.

And the American Lung Association offers a smoking and vaping cessation program for teens ages 14 to 19 called N-O-T, or Not on Tobacco, and an alternative program for teens caught with e-cigarettes in school called INDEPTH and TheVapeTalk.org to help educate parents on how to speak with their teens about e-cigarettes.

This report includes material from the Washington Post.

17 rare and unusual health stories out of Omaha

Articles
U.S. bailout funds boost brazilian meat company JBS
Firm gets $78 million in U.S. pork contracts, more than any American producer, even as it faces investigations

Two men in cowboy hats stood behind President Donald Trump in May as he announced a $16 billion agricultural bailout. Trump said the financial relief from his trade war with China would help American farmers, reinforcing an earlier tweet when the president said the funds would help "great Patriot Farmers."

But not all beneficiaries of the taxpayer-funded program are American farmers or patriots. JBS, a Brazilian company that is the largest meat producer in the world, has received $78 million in government pork contracts funded with the bailout funds — more than any other U.S. pork producer.

JBS's winning hand in securing a quarter of all of the pork bailout contracts is one example of the power a small number of multinational meat companies now hold in the United States. JBS has become a major player in the United States even as it faces price-fixing and other investigations from the federal government.

The company's explosive growth through acquisitions over the past decade has been a dominant factor in the consolidation of the meat industry.

A dozen years ago, JBS did not own a single U.S. meat plant. Today, JBS and three other food companies control about 85% of beef production. JBS and Tyson Foods control about 40% of the poultry market. And JBS and three other companies control nearly 70% of the pork market.

JBS and the large multinational meat companies, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and Cargill, use their size and global presence to create efficiencies that enable them to produce a variety of quality foods at a lower price. But many agricultural economists and food marketing analysts say when so few companies control the market, they can drive smaller operators out of business, reducing competition and sometimes raising prices for consumers. Large food companies have in the past reduced supply to drive up the price of their products. The Justice Department is investigating whether JBS and other poultry companies illegally coordinated to do just that.

JBS says it's a vital part of the agricultural economy; the company employs more than 60,000 people in the United States and buys from more than 11,000 U.S. farmers and ranchers. The company and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue say the bailout funds JBS received are helping American farmers because the company buys its hogs from them.

JBS CEOGilberto Tomazoni told analysts in August that JBS is "at the best moment in its history." He said an upcoming stock offering in the United States will allow the company to continue to expand. JBS says expansion efforts "will better position the company to sustainably meet evolving customer and consumer expectations."

However, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., recently challenged whether JBS's entry into the U.S. market should have been allowed.

Corruption scandals have engulfed JBS in Brazil, the senators wrote to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and company officials have "admitted criminal conduct to secure loans that were used for investment in the United States." They've asked for a review of the purchases.

JBS said it received all "necessary regulatory approvals from the ... antitrust authorities, including the Department of Justice" before purchasing each of the companies.

Small farmers and cattlemen are glad some politicians are listening. They say the federal government's bailout — and JBS's share of it — are reminiscent of the bank bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis. Even though many of the banks were under investigation by the federal government, they still received federal money.

"I think it's one of those situations where it's too big to fail," said Greg Gunthorp, who runs his family hog farm in Indiana. "We are talking about a company that has shown it doesn't play by the rules."

JBS purchased its first U.S.meat plants in 2007, using Brazilian bank loans the owners secured illegally, court records show. In a plea deal, brothers Joesley and Wesley Batista told prosecutors how they bribed bank and government officials to receive low-interest loans.

The bank loans and other funding allowed JBS to consolidate five U.S. companies — which produced pork, poultry and beef — into a single company, JBS USA. In 2007, JBS bought pork and beef producer Swift and Co. In 2008, it purchased the beef operations of Smithfield Foods. In 2009, it acquired poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride. In 2015, JBS bought Cargill's pork division. And in 2017, the company purchased poultry producer GNP Co.

"JBS used their ill-gotten gains to dominate themeatmarket," said Joe Maxwell, a fourth-generation hog farmer and executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, a nonprofit that fights income disparities in U.S. agricultural markets. The loans, Maxwell said, "allowed them to become the big dogs almost overnight."

JBS said it did not refute the plea deal but said it also raised capital by selling company stock.

The bailout payments underscore JBS's advantage over smaller, domestic competitors. Some of its pork plants kill more than 1,000 pigs an hour, enabling JBS to operate off a slimmer profit margin and underbid other companies for the bailout contracts.

JBS is also able to shift production to avoid high tariffs. While U.S. pork exported to China faces a 72% tariff, pork from JBS plants in Brazil faces only a 10% to 12% tariff.

JBS increased production where tariffs were lower, benefiting twice from the Chinese trade war — first by collecting the bailout money and then by increasing pork production at its plants outside the United States, which JBS announced this year.

JBS has grown and thrived despite multiple federal inquiries. The Agriculture Department said JBS underpaid family farmers and ranchers last year at three slaughterhouses in Colorado, Nebraska and Texas by claiming the cattle weighed less than they did. Domestic cattle owners say they lost millions of dollars.

The USDA fined JBS $79,000. Cattle producers said the fine was an insult to small ranchers. "That's pennies to them," said Steve Krajicek, an independent cattle producer who sells to JBS. "They make in excess of $1 million a day at the Nebraska plants. It's not even enough for them to blink an eye or to reconsider how they are doing business."

JBS's growth has not been slowed by heftier fines for worker safety violations — about $20 million over the past decade, according to records from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

A Washington Post analysis of OSHA data from 2015 to 2018 shows that JBS has the highest rate of serious worker injuries — including those involving amputation and hospitalization — among meat companies in the United States, and the second highest rate of serious injuries among all companies in the United States.

JBS declined to comment on the $79,000 fine and its worker injury rates.

Consolidation can lead to benefits for consumers. Trey Malone, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University, said consolidation has led to lower prices and an explosion of new food products. The average grocery store in 1995 had about 8,000 options. Now, it's more than 45,000.

"As companies get larger, you get economies of scale. The cost of production per unit decreases," Malone said. "Companies increasingly compete at quality levels, offering hormone-free meat, Angus beef. They create new products. From a consumer perspective, you have higher quality meat and cheaper meat products."

But the small number of major players increases the possibility that companies could collude to increase prices, Malone and other economists say. A lawsuit filed in 2016 by a food service firm in New York alleges that JBS-owned Pilgrim's Pride and other poultry companies intentionally destroyed flocks of breeder hens to reduce the poultry supply.

The coordinated effort resulted in a 50% increase in the wholesale price of broiler chickens, the lawsuit claims. The civil suit is on hold as the Justice Department investigates.

"This is a consumer disaster because of the amount of power, money and political clout that these companies hold," said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor who studies the food industry. "If you own everything, you get to set the rules, you get to set the price, because there is no real competition."

JBS declined to comment on the price-fixing investigation. Lawyers for Pilgrim's Pride and other poultry companies filed a motion to dismiss the case in January.

With a few large operators, meat contamination can pose a greater threat because their products end up on plates across the nation. Retail giants Costco, Walmart and Sysco all sell JBS products.

For example, in 2018, JBS ordered the largest recall of ground beef in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 12 million pounds of beef contaminated with a virulent strain of salmonella in 30 states sickened 403 people, of whom 117 were hospitalized. Less than 2% of the meat was recovered.

"They can cause a major food safety disaster," said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group. "These plants are bigger, turn out product faster and the federal government has deregulated them, giving plant owners more control over safety inspections."

JBS said it quickly responded by issuing the recall. The company said it was working with "internal and external food safety experts" to "ensure the safety of our products."

Small cattle ranchers launched a social media campaign in October at a rally called "Stop the Stealin' " to protest the power JBS and other large beef processors have over setting prices for cattle. Ranchers said they are being underpaid by about $200 a head. JBS declined to comment on the ranchers' complaints.

About 400 cattlemen and women attended the rally in Nebraska — some riding on horseback. Younger ranchers downloaded the Twitter app onto the smartphones of the older ranchers, teaching them how to tweet their protests directly to Trump.

"Stop packer collusion!!" tweeted Casey Perman, a small rancher in South Dakota. "Time to help the little guy like you promised ... #FairCattleMarkets @realDonaldTrump."

The ranchers say the concentrated power of these companies gives them too much leverage over federal regulators. "These multinational corporations are taking over the food supply and federal government has been complicit in this; USDA has been complicit in this," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.

Since entering the U.S. market in 2007, JBS has spent more than $7.7 million on lobbying, records show, making it the fourth largest spender in the meat processing industry. It's also won more than $900 million in government meat contracts, second only to the U.S.based Tyson Foods, according to a Washington Post analysis of government records.

The companies' reach into the federal government includes the successful recruitment of top regulators. JBS created a new position — global head of food safety and quality assurance — in 2017, giving the post to a former top food safety regulator at the USDA named Al Almanza.

At USDA, Almanza was viewed by small farmers and food safety groups as an advocate for the big producers; he led efforts to deregulate poultry, pork and beef inspections sought by JBS and other large companies. Three days after leaving the USDA, Almanza started at JBS.

In a statement, JBS said Almanza "strongly disagrees with any notion that he had any interest in maximizing industry profits over safeguarding public health during his career of public service."

Maxwell's group is also focusing on Perdue and the bailout money he has awarded to JBS. The small ranchers' campaign is circulating a political cartoon of Perdue and JBS's Wesley Batista in bed together with Perdue throwing wads of bailout cash into the air.


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'Out of this world': Nebraskans in D.C. revel in rare chance to see their team play — and win big

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — As the final seconds of Nebraska’s lopsided victory ticked off Saturday, rows of poncho-clad Husker fans lingered on their side of Maryland Stadium.

They wanted to shout, “Go Big Red” just a few last times into the damp and chilly November night. For many, it was a rare opportunity to see their beloved team without having to leave town.

The Washington, D.C., area is home to Nebraska’s largest alumni base on the East Coast, and ever since the game versus the Terrapins was announced, Huskers from across the mid-Atlantic region have had the date circled on their calendars.

“We might be the only people excited about Maryland being in the Big Ten because it’s like, ‘Oh, our backyard,’ ” Reese Pearson said at a tailgate with family and friends ahead of the game.

Originally from Davenport, Nebraska, Pearson now lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife, Chaaron, who is from Lincoln.

They snapped up a large block of Nebraska section tickets as soon as they went on sale and were among the first to roll into the parking lot outside the stadium Saturday morning.

On their menu for the day: Valentino’s Pizza, Runzas and Nebraska craft brews — all brought back from a recent trip to Nebraska in cooler bags and suitcases, which elicited some raised eyebrows at the airport.

From their speakers poured Blind Melon’s 1993 college rock hit “No Rain.”

“We’re living in the ’90s — like Nebraska fans,” Pearson joked.

Those glory days might well seem like a distant memory. But for a lot of D.C.-based Nebraska fans, the 2019 season’s win-loss tally was irrelevant as the team made its first trip to College Park.

They were just happy to watch Nebraska play inside the Beltway.

RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez greets fans as the team arrives at Maryland Stadium. It was the Huskers’ first road game ever against the Terrapins.

They shrugged off the lack of any storied rivalry with Maryland and dismissed the dreary weather with recollections of sitting through snow or bitter cold in Memorial Stadium back in the day.

Adam Froemming said he met his wife, Abby, “in the most Nebraska way” possible — at the Embassy Suites in Lincoln before the 2006 Nebraska-Colorado game.

Despite living in the Washington area for the past 11 years, both have held onto their 402 area code phone numbers.

“Regardless of team record, team performance, who the coach is — the opportunity to see Nebraska live and in living color … would not have missed it,” Froemming said.

Their 5-year-old son, Johnny, “loves anything and everything Nebraska” and has been sporting Husker gear since he was a baby. But the Maryland game was his first opportunity to see the Huskers on a football field.

And they had reason to be upbeat after Saturday’s dominating performance, which sets up an opportunity for Nebraska to make a bowl game with a Black Friday victory over Iowa.

In beating Maryland, NU snapped a four-game losing streak that started more than a month ago and lasted through two bye weeks, testing the patience of coaches, players and fans.

Nebraska coach Scott Frost, armed with a new two-year contract extension, said Thursday before the win that NU players needed more confirmation that their process was working.

That sentiment was shared by fans who came out to see the game.

“The team really needs it in a lot of ways — for morale probably more than anything,” said Kari Steinberg, who grew up in Superior, Nebraska, and graduated from the university in 2004.

Steinberg moved to the D.C. area a couple of years after graduation and has traveled to see Nebraska play at other Big Ten venues.

But like many others here, she was happy to catch Saturday’s game without having to book a flight or a hotel room.

In fact, she noted that her drive to the game on Saturday was a lot shorter than the trek from her hometown to Memorial Stadium.

“We’re definitely excited for them to be this close,” Steinberg said. “Excited to give them this much support this far from home.”

Locals and out-of-towners alike rallied together at a Football Friday event the night before the game at a basement D.C. sports bar. Anna English marveled at the size of the crowd packing the cavernous space.

“It’s absolutely incredible,” English said. “There’s always been a good D.C. Husker presence, but this is out of this world.”

Originally from Aurora, Nebraska, she and her boyfriend, Kevin Coroneos, hosted traveling Husker fans this week at their apartment in Arlington, Virginia.

The pair originally bonded over their shared Husker fandom and have been making plans for the Maryland game since it was announced years ago.

KAYLA WOLF/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Nebraska’s JD Spielman is embraced by Austin Allen after scoring a touchdown against Maryland on Saturday.

Of course, there were also fans who traveled out from Nebraska or other parts of the country for the game.

Scott Soukup grew up in Morse Bluff, Nebraska. Now in Illinois, he and his son, Todd, have been traveling to various Nebraska Big Ten road games since NU joined the conference, checking off stadiums as they went along.

With Saturday’s game, they’ve completed the conference circuit and have to figure out what to do next.

Soukup said he’s been putting money aside for a while so they can travel to see Nebraska play in a national championship game.

Then he laughs.

“It’s getting to be a pretty big account.”

World-Herald staff writer Sam McKewon contributed to this report.

Photos: Nebraska travels to Maryland