Alcohol fee = 'cause for harm' money: A funding idea whose time has come

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Image by Bright Meadow via Flickr

Booze, it seems, causes some people to do drunken things, get in trouble (i.e., do harm, at times), go off to the E.R., occasionally in an ambulance. So why not tax the booze to pay for the E.R. and ambulances? This is being proposed by San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos in one of a bunch of efforts to fill the gaping budget hole that this city, like virtually every city in the nation, is facing.

It is called a “cause for harm” fee. A fee, explains San Francisco Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius, differs from a tax because it can only be spent for the specified purpose for which it was collected. We don’t like the word Tax these days.

No fair! say the bar and restaurant owners; five cents more per martini will kill the business! I doubt that. Having put in my time as a martini (among other things) drinker, I can absolutely certify that if you want a$6 cocktail you’re not going to pass it up at $6.05.

“Cause for harm” fees, in fact, seem like a pretty good idea:

  • Oil company digging fees (say, five cents a quart) for spills, etc.
  • Leaf-blower fees to mitigate noise, air and clogging-the-storm-drain pollution
  • A dead cell phone fee to ship dead cell phones to another planet if there’s one that wouldn’t really mind
  • Pigeon fees… well, just because

You can create your own list. Fees of this “cause for harm” type are collected in other states, though more often used to pay for things like treatment and education rather than transportation to the ER. In any event, they clearly make sense. And somehow the cause/effect principle seems like one that should pick up wider support.

Maybe Mr. Karzai could impose a few fees of his own, and use them to send all those troops back home.

Supervisor’s fee on alcohol a terrific idea.

Cell phone radiation danger: true or false?

from Grandview Park in San Francisco
Image via Wikipedia

Head-zaps, otherwise known as cell phone radiation levels, messing with your brain? Nobody knows. What we do know is that cell phones emit radiation, just as radio and TV stations do at somewhat higher levels. What we also know is that nobody cares much. The back-and-forth going on between legislators and cell phone industry lobbyists suggests that a few people do care… but it’s a long road from caring to understanding to any kind of meaningful action.

In California, where local and state efforts to increase information made available to consumers have met with mixed results, an explanation in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle offers some interesting perspectives. To understand them, it helps to know about the city’s Sutro Tower (above), a looming structure completed in 1973 and now furnishing transmissions for 11 TV stations, 4 FM radio stations and about 20 wireless communication services.

Local electrical engineer Bill Choisser has this to say:

The power of radio waves falls off as the square of the distance. This means one watt an inch from your head (typical for a cell phone) has the same effect as 1 million watts 1,000 inches from your head. The strongest TV signals on Sutro Tower run i million watts. A thousand inches is about 83 feet. Whether putting your head 83 feet from Sutro Tower every time you talk on the phone bothers you, is up to you.

San Francisco’s board of supervisor’s voted last week to require disclosure of the measure of cell phone radiation next to sales displays, something unlikely to make the tiniest bit of difference to sellers, buyers or anyone else. The FCC has a similar requirement likely to make even less difference.

CNET’s Christina Jewett, on her California Watch blog, summed up some of the action at the state level, where Sen. Mark Leno‘s bill to make radiation level information more accessible recently died. Leno emphasizes, in a statement on his website that there’s no definitive evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer or other illnesses. Supporters argue that there are potential health effects dangerous enough to warrant making more information available, Jewett explains, while opponents termed the whole business expensive and unnecessary.

When the bill was a going concern, it did little to slow the never-ending party that lobbyists for AT&T Inc., one of its chief opponents, tend to host at Arco Arena. The firm spent about $535,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of this year. From Kings games to Disney Stars on Ice to a Valentine’s Super Love Jam, legislative staffers continued to enjoy the hospitality. (Details below).

Whether the lobbying effort led to the bill’s demise may never be known. But the debate at least is bringing out more information on the issue, one that regulators and scientists pledge to keep watching.

Given the number of Americans walking around (or sitting, or standing in place) with cell phones plastered to their ears, I for one am happy that somebody is watching… and that Bill Choisser is explaining.

State hangs up on expansion of San Francisco phone law | California Watch.

When citizen cops turn bad

In my small, neighborhood park there is a regular assortment of runners and walkers, picnic groups, dog-walkers, grandfathers pushing strollers, homeless guys and tennis players. On any given day you can hear voices speaking Russian, Chinese, English or a lovely range of other languages. And always there are children — with moms, dads, nannies or other supervisors — stumbling around makeshift mini-baseball diamonds in the meadow or tumbling noisily around the playground. It is, in short, exactly what an ideal neighborhood park should be. Its neighborhood, within a few surrounding miles, is home to the low-ish income, middle income and affluent.

And apparently at least one over-anxious mom. Recently she spotted a man she perceived to be a potential threat. The incident was reported in a San Francisco Chronicle op ed piece by former editor and now columnist/blogger Phil Bronstein, who says he used to take his own son there. (Bronstein is not among the low-ish or middle incomes.)

A worried mom took (the man’s) photo with her phone and messaged it around with a detailed description and a warning. “He does not have children and pretends he does and is there to do pull-ups,” she wrote.

The e-mail, originally intended for a small pool of officials and families, went wide in an expanding spiral onto lots of electronic doorsteps. That’s the way it works on the Web.

“Hope someone goes Woodsman on him,” one commenter wrote.

“There were people who wanted to suspend the Constitution,” investigating police Capt. Rich Correia at the Richmond station told me about some lynch-mob sentiment. “It’s interesting how people feed off the Internet, how fast it gets around and how much people can amplify it. Folks made all sorts of assumptions about (things) they didn’t know.”

In this case, the mix of digital citizen vigilance, child safety concerns and viral networking caused a train wreck with a definite victim. And it wasn’t a kid.

San Francisco blog SFist ran the headline “Potential Child Predator” with the photo the mom took. KTVU-TV broadcast the guy’s easily identifiable portrait and kept it on the screen throughout its story. “Take a look at the picture of this man,” said the reporter. “There’s obviously concern he’s some kind of predator.”

Except he isn’t.

What he is, unfortunately, is a marked man. Tried and convicted in the courts of the internet and public communications. The cops identified him, went to his house, determined there was no danger (he was “unguarded, cooperative and surprised at being the subject of a police investigation”) and that the poor guy was doing nothing but exercises in the park. The blog and the TV people took down his photo, but you have to wonder if the original mom apologized, or if he will feel very welcome in the park now.

A somewhat different go-after-the-bad-guys story was reported today by New York Times writer Dan Frosch, this one about Justin Kurtz, a hapless Kalamazoo, Michigan college student whose properly parked car was towed from its parking lot and it cost him $118 to get it back. Anyone who’s ever had a car towed can identify with the rage that then prompted Kurtz to start a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” But after 800 people signed up in sympathetic outrage, T&J filed a defamation suit seeking $75,000 in damages. I’m rooting for Justin and his friends (having been towed under less-than-happy circumstances myself), but the whole business will likely end up costing another unnecessary load of pain and anguish — and possibly, more than $118.

The question is, how far are we ready to trust cyberspace? In the case of the Mountain Lake Park non-pervert, the hysteria continued despite fast action by the cops.

People trusted the social network far more than they did the seasoned and reputationally impressive police captain. “After 30 years on the force,” he says, “it’s hard to accept that people believe Internet chatter more than they do reaching me on the phone.”

In this case, social media was not a new and improved town crier. Instead, the hysterical tendencies that understandably surround kids’ security led to what Correia called “long e-mails of inference and innuendo like the opening act of ‘The Crucible,”’ Arthur Miller’s play about witch hunts.

As a friend of mine with kids who lives near Mountain Lake Park and got copies of the e-mail from multiple people noted, “It’s often easier to share than to deliberate. Were we deputized, or just weaponized?”

In the emerging world, you can think you’re a citizen journalist, but you’re really a citizen cop. And in the Mountain Lake Park case, people also became citizen prosecutor, judge and jury.

Viral campaigns are hard to undo, but maybe we should try. What if T&J were to return their ill-gotten $118, enabling Justin to create a new Facebook page about what a fine business they are? Their tarnished reputation could then be restored to its former glory, if towing companies have glory, for a pittance.

With the non-pervert, it’s not that simple. But maybe the over-zealous mom will take the trouble to contact him and apologize. It would be a start, although I’m not holding my breath. If I see him, however, I’m apt to be extra kind and pleasant, and then people will probably talk. As long as they don’t put us on Facebook.

‘Pervert’ in the park isn’t what he seems.

Handguns, the second amendment and the public safety

One young man with a suitcase, one with a hand...
Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Two sides of the gun control debate squared off in San Francisco this week, focus of a mini-battle over the fully loaded question: Does your right to walk around with a loaded gun in public override my right to feel safe when I don’t know if you might go off your rocker? This writer discovered, thanks to a show of hands at the Commonwealth Club sponsored panel, that I was the only unarmed person within a back-of-the-house three-row section. This revelation guarantees discomfort but keeps you alert.

California is among the majority of U.S. states which allow anyone to carry unloaded guns in plain sight, or licensed individuals to carry loaded guns concealed. Variations of gun laws — can you have a few in the car? how about in a restaurant? suppose your taste is for machine guns? — are complex and mind-boggling. Gun proponents fall back on the second amendment; gun-control advocates tend to cite public safety and privacy rights. Reasoned debate is pretty much out of the question.

The tempest in the California teapot arose over gun folks’ dislike of the “may issue” state business. California is a “may issue” state, meaning a permit may be issued to a law-abiding applicant; as opposed to a “shall issue” state, meaning you (law-abiding citizen) will darned well get that permit once you apply. In protest over the “may issue” situation, California gun buffs recently took to the streets — or to the local Starbucks, as the case happened — with prominently displayed weaponry. Some latte drinkers were not amused. Gun buffs were defiant. Starbucks reportedly wishes they had picked Peets. Meanwhile, CA Assemblymember Lori Saldana introduced a bill, AB 1934, to ban “Open Carry,” and the battle was joined.

At the recent panel, Emeryville CA Police Chief Ken James, University of CA Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring and Executive Director Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California restated most of the familiar arguments. Throughout, James was expressionless, Zimring frowned, and Paredes wore an expression that can generously be described as a not-too-friendly smile. There were assertions (thousands of lives are saved every year by people armed and defending themselves or their neighbors; police don’t need to be stopping people all over the place asking if that gun is loaded; police can’t do their crime-stoppers job without the help of law-abiding, armed citizens; it’s not easy to know when an armed citizen will misuse his arms…) that all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

Two details are worth noting, though. Zimring pointed out that in the 2007  Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, took things a little farther than they had been by specifically mentioning handguns, which had not been invented when the second amendment was written. It’s handguns in public places that tend to rile up both sides. Therefore the hoopla over open carry, Zimring said, is not where the discussion should be. Eventually, the right to bear handgun v right to public safety will need to be settled. In other words, when does your right to pack a gun interfere with my right not to be around you when you do?

At the end of the discussion, moderator John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked a question about whether panelists were packing heat during this event. Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems. Professor Zimring was not, because he said if he tried to hit a target everyone around would be in trouble. Citizen Paredes was. A concealed weapon, because you never know if another citizen might need you to leap into action. Was it loaded? Yes.

Somehow, this did not make me feel safer.

Gun buffs push 'Open Carry' agenda

Whatever those framers of the Constitution meant, their second amendment writing seems to have kept us all up in arms, so to speak, since about 1791. The latest battleground has gun buffs lining up in California to take aim at AB1934, a bill now pending in the state legislature which would make it illegal to carry an unloaded gun in plain view.

On one side are the “Open Carry” folks. They have taken offense at the fact that everyone who applies for a permit to carry a concealed weapon is not immediately granted that permit, even if he or she is a law-abiding citizen. You want to pack heat? The Open Carry folks think nothing should stop you. And since it is quite legal to carry an unloaded gun anywhere, any way you want, they have taken to strolling around with pistols tucked in their belts in protest. AB 1934 would interfere with this pleasant activity.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, is quoted as saying, “What I’m concerned about is people, who have no training, can carry a gun for no other purpose than to make a public statement.”

Ah, but according to Sam Paredes, Executive Director of Gun Owners of California, carrying an unloaded gun is just no problem at all.

Making public statements is an American activity. The “open carry movement” is driven by the inequities and unfair withholding of concealed-carry weapon permits.

The intimidation that the lawmaker, or others, may feel is no reason to make another law. Imagined fears are not justification for punishing laws that threaten innocent citizens. “Fears” were addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s when the court ruled that people’s “fears” were not justification to deny civil and constitutional rights.

Once California becomes a “shall issue” state, and all those who apply who are capable and law abiding are permitted to carry concealed weapons, the concern over empty guns carried in open view will fade.

Does this make sense? Perhaps as much as Paredes’ argument that since: “(w)e all know that the police cannot be on the spot immediately with every crime,” so let’s just let everyone pack a gun and be ready to take matters into his own hand.

Emeryville (CA) Police Chief Ken James is not so sure that’s a good idea.

Law enforcement officers are taught that guns are a dangerous and deadly threat to their safety and the safety of the public they serve. They understand that any encounter involving a gun is grave.

“Open carry,” the practice of carrying an unloaded handgun exposed in a belt holster, unnecessarily subjects our officers and the public to tense encounters that have unforeseeable consequences. The police officer who approaches an “open carry” subject must rapidly assess the subject’s behavior without knowing if the individual has a permit to carry a gun or a gun license. The officer knows only that he or she must detain the subject only long enough to determine whether the gun is unloaded.

An officer has more authority to check on whether a driver is legally driving a car than to stop an individual to verify if the individual has the right to carry a gun.

The officer doesn’t know if the individual is a law-abiding citizen or an individual prohibited from owning or carrying a gun. The officer does know that an unloaded weapon can become a loaded weapon in less than 1.3 seconds.

Paredes and James will face off in the company of University of California, Berkeley law professor Franklin E. Zimring next week, on a panel moderated by San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz at the Commonwealth Club of California, a local public affairs organization with national reach.

In the meantime, there seem to be people carrying guns — hey, it’s legal, probably — in public places, and the public hopes they’re not loaded.

Medical marijuana: a boon & a challenge

When my sister Mimi found that marijuana could relieve her severe gastrointestinal distress, years ago, one joint after dinner was all it took. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep up the supply. After one foray into the rather scary realm of pot-dealing in a state (Georgia) where we could have wound up in jail very quickly, we decided that not even such clear relief was worth the risk.

Today, at least in California and 14 other states — with the District of Columbia possibly to be added soon — the risk is minimal but the dosage is fuzzy. The conundrum was outlined by writer Lena K. Sun in the San Francisco Chronicle:

On Tuesday, District of Columbia officials gave final approval to a bill establishing a legal medical marijuana program. If Congress signs off, D.C. doctors – like their counterparts in 14 states – will be allowed to add pot to therapies they can recommend to certain patients, who will then eat it, smoke it or vaporize it until they decide they are, well, high enough.

The exact dosage and means of delivery – as well as the sometimes perplexing process of obtaining a drug that remains illegal under federal law – will be left largely up to the patient. Doctors say that upends the way they are used to dispensing medication, giving the straitlaced medical establishment a whiff of the freewheeling world of weed.

Even in states where marijuana is allowed for medical use, doctors cannot write prescriptions because of the drug’s status as an illegal substance. Physicians can only recommend it, and have no control over the quality of the drug their patients acquire.

Because there are no uniform standards for medical marijuana, doctors have to rely on the experience of other doctors and their own judgment. That, they say, can lead to abuse.

California’s “quick-in, quick-out mills” that readily hand out recommendations have proliferated, worrying advocates. The state, the first to legalize medical marijuana 14 years ago, allows for a wider range of conditions, including anxiety.

To guard against abuse, some doctors say they recommend marijuana only after patients exhaust other remedies. Some doctors perform drug tests as part of pre-screenings.

Mimi died over a year ago. Her last decades, like almost all of her adult life, were spent in the State of Georgia, where medical marijuana is still against the law. I know what her required dosage was; legalization and proper oversight would allow doctors to learn dosages that work for their patients. It seems worse than cruel that thousands of other sick and dying citizens continue to be denied the potential relief that legalized medical marijuana could bring.

Dispensing medical pot a challenge for doctors.

The fears behind Arizona immigration law

If immigration reform has been on the back burner, despite President Obama’s campaign promises to tackle the issue, the May Day marchers hope to move it back to the front, and turn up the heat. They turned out in New York — 5,000+ in Manhattan’s Foley Square, in Los Angeles — fired up by singer Gloria Estefan and Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, and here in San Francisco — where the basic fears raised by Arizona’s new law were evident. SB 1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer last week, makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.

The (San Francisco) march, part of the annual worldwide May Day workers’ rights demonstrations, stretched four to five blocks and ended at City Hall, where members of the conservative Tea Party and local Golden Gate Minutemen held a counter-protest.

Jim Homer, a business manager for Local 216 of the Laborers International Union of North America, whose 100-member group led the march, said many fellow construction laborers fear Arizona’s SB1070 will spread to California and create cultural hostility toward foreign-born workers.

“The immigration system is set up to blame the workers who come here,” Homer said. “There needs to be reform of the immigration laws that put more focus on the employers and their responsibilities, not just on the people who come to this country to make a living.”

The two primary sides to the immigration issue were in sharp focus on the west coast:

(W)orkers and immigrants at the San Francisco march – and others like it in Oakland and San Jose – said the law will give police the right to check for immigration papers of any brown-skinned citizens.

At the Civic Center counter-protest, Elizabeth Kelly, an Alameda resident who supports the Golden Gate Minutemen, said she also wants immigration reform. The Minutemen are a local branch of the controversial national group that voluntarily patrols the border, trying to stop undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

“Close the border,” she said. “I want to see them go back. That’d be my immigration reform.”

The Golden Gate Minutemen, whose Web site features some scary stuff (May Day! May Day! Invaders Coming!) is part of the fear factor for a number of recent immigrant — some legal, some not — friends of mine. “They’re not going to ask questions first, they’re going to send you to jail or out of the country, and ask questions later,” said one.

Most reports say Obama won’t do much beyond tightening border control in the near future. A lot more is needed. Until we get real reform, including some reasonable guest worker provisions and amnesty for those who have proved themselves good citizens already, we’re going to continue to be a nation not just of immigrants, but of fear. Not a very comfortable social system for anyone.

Big S.F. protest of Arizona immigration law.

Is your cell phone frying your brain?

OK, if you think it’s all just a lot of hysterical hooey about cell phones & radiation, you can click on to another page. But this op ed piece by public health expert Joel Moskowitz (with Diana McDonnell and Gene Kazinets) in the San Francisco Chronicle got my attention. Moskowitz is the Director of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health.

A huge, 30-year study called COSMOS has been launched in Europe to determine whether cell phones cause cancer and other health problems. Meanwhile, policymakers in Sacramento are considering legislation to ensure people know how much radiation their cell phones emit. The wireless industry vigorously opposes such legislation. It argues that its phones comply with regulations, and there is no consensus about risks so people don’t need to know this. Our research review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found alarming results to the contrary.

We reviewed 23 case-control studies that examined tumor risk due to cell phone use. Although as a whole the data varied, among the 10 higher quality studies, we found a harmful association between phone use and tumor risk. The lower quality studies, which failed to meet scientific best practices, were primarily industry funded.

The 13 studies that investigated cell phone use for 10 or more years found a significant harmful association with tumor risk, especially for brain tumors, giving us ample reason for concern about long-term use.

Do federal regulations adequately protect the public? The 1996 Federal Communications Commission regulations are based upon the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), a measure of heat generated by six minutes of cell phone exposure in an artificial model that represents a 200-pound man’s brain. Although every cell phone model has a SAR, the industry doesn’t make it easy to find it. Moreover, children, and adults who weigh less than 200 pounds, are exposed to more radiation than our government deems “safe.”

So just for fun, I got out the 107-page User Guide that came with my cell phone. Full disclosure: my cell phone is turned off unless I’m out walking or traveling; it takes pictures but it doesn’t do apps. Still, those 107 pages say it can do all the fancy Stuff.

On page 81 I found the SAR data. Even if I wanted to decipher the very small print, there is no way any of it would be meaningful to a lay reader. It does say that “Your wireless phone is a radio transmitter and receiver. It is designed and manufactured not to exceed limits for exposure to radio frequency (RF) energy set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. Government.”

I do try to trust the U.S. Government. But since they once sent my then-Marine husband double-timing out of a foxhole toward an A-bomb blast with a radiation tag hung around his neck in the ’50s, it would appear we have long been open to experimentation about radiation damage. (He survived. The animals positioned closer to the blast site did not. No one will ever be certain how much damage was sustained by those Marines wearing radiation tags… but then, who knew we’d keep right on storing bombs and fighting senseless wars anyway?)

Another what-can-you-believe? comes from CNN’s medical guru Sanjay Gupta in this line from a two-year-old commentary on potential cell phone radiation damage still up on his blog:

Over the last year, I have reviewed nearly a hundred studies on this topic, including the 19 large epidemiological studies. I urge you to do the same and read carefully to see what you think. Here is an example from a Swedish paper showing no increased risk of a brain tumor, known as acoustic neuroma. (see study) As you read the paper, you will find they defined a “regular” cell phone user as someone who uses a cell phone once per week during six months or more.

Once a week? Hello? Even in Sweden, even a decade ago, did anyone with a cell phone not use it at least once an hour? This very old study did have a timeless conclusion: “Our findings do not indicate an increased risk of acoustic neuroma related to short-term mobile phone use after a short latency period. However, our data suggest an increased risk of acoustic neuroma associated with mobile phone use of at least 10 years’ duration.”

Moskowitz argues that it’s time to revamp FCC regulations, pointing out that it is not just heat transfer but also variations in frequencies emitted that could cause damage.

Most of us know something about potential damage lurking in our Stuff. But we tend to be slow learners, and our regulatory agencies tend to be even slower. Having just lost a greatly loved sister, a long-time smoker, to pulmonary failure, Moskowitz’ concluding paragraphs hit home:

We should address this issue proactively even if we do not fully understand its magnitude. Our government has faced similar public health threats in the past. In 1965, although there was no scientific consensus about the harmful effects of cigarettes, Congress required a precautionary warning label on cigarette packages: “Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” More specific warnings were not required until 1984: “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Should we have waited 19 years until absolutely certain before we informed the public about these risks?

Although more research on cell phone radiation is needed, we cannot afford to wait. There are 285 million cell phones in use in this country, and two-thirds of children over the age of seven use them. Manufacturers bury the SAR within their owner’s manuals, along with safety instructions to keep your phone up to an inch away from your body.

Nine nations have issued precautionary warnings. It is time for our government to require health warnings and publicize simple steps to reduce the health risks of cell phone use.

Why not?

Government must inform us of cell phone risk.

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