U.S. Opposition to Breast-Feeding Resolution Stuns World Health Officials

A resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the hundreds of government delegates who gathered this spring in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly.

Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.

Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations.

American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.

When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions. Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was the first to find itself in the cross hairs.

The Americans were blunt: If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced.

The showdown over the issue was recounted by more than a dozen participants from several countries, many of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from the United States.

Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico and the United States.

“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” said Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, who has attended meetings of the assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, since the late 1980s.

“What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on best way to protect infant and young child health,” she said.

In the end, the Americans’ efforts were mostly unsuccessful. It was the Russians who ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure — and the Americans did not threaten them.

The State Department declined to respond to questions, saying it could not discuss private diplomatic conversations. The Department of Health and Human Services, the lead agency in the effort to modify the resolution, explained the decision to contest the resolution’s wording but said H.H.S. was not involved in threatening Ecuador.

“The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” an H.H.S. spokesman said in an email. “We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.” The spokesman asked to remain anonymous in order to speak more freely.

Although lobbyists from the baby food industry attended the meetings in Geneva, health advocates said they saw no direct evidence that they played a role in Washington’s strong-arm tactics. The $70 billion industry, which is dominated by a handful of American and European companies, has seen sales flatten in wealthy countries in recent years, as more women embrace breast-feeding. Overall, global sales are expected to rise by 4 percent in 2018, according to Euromonitor, with most of that growth occurring in developing nations.

The intensity of the administration’s opposition to the breast-feeding resolution stunned public health officials and foreign diplomats, who described it as a marked contrast to the Obama administration, which largely supported W.H.O.’s longstanding policy of encouraging breast-feeding.

During the deliberations, some American delegates even suggested the United States might cut its contribution the W.H.O., several negotiators said.

Washington is the single largest contributor to the health organization, providing $845 million, or roughly 15 percent of its budget, last year.

The confrontation was the latest example of the Trump administration siding with corporate interests on numerous public health and environmental issues.

In talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Americans have been pushing for language that would limit the ability of Canada, Mexico and the United States to put warning labels on junk food and sugary beverages, according to a draft of the proposal reviewed by The New York Times.

During the same Geneva meeting where the breast-feeding resolution was debated, the United States succeeded in removing statements supporting soda taxes from a document that advises countries grappling with soaring rates of obesity.

The Americans also sought, unsuccessfully, to thwart a W.H.O. effort aimed at helping poor countries obtain access to lifesaving medicines. Washington, supporting the pharmaceutical industry, has long resisted calls to modify patent laws as a way of increasing drug availability in the developing world, but health advocates say the Trump administration has ratcheted up its opposition to such efforts.

[The New York Times]

Trump admin tightens media access for federal scientists

The Trump administration is directing federal scientists in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to get approval from the Department of the Interior, its parent agency, before speaking to reporters, according to the Los Angeles Times.

USGS employees interviewed by the L.A. Times said the policy is a departure from decades of past media practices that allowed scientists to quickly respond to media requests. The employees said that the new policy will significantly undermine this.

A spokesperson for Interior disputed this description of the policy to the L.A. Times, saying that “the characterization that there is any new policy or that it for some reason targets scientists is completely false.”

Deputy press secretary for the Department of the Interior, Faith Vander Voort, told the outlet that Interior had only asked the USGS public affairs office to follow 2012 media guidelines established under former President Obama.

The guidelines say Interior’s communications office must be notified ahead of some types of interviews but does not say that scientists must get approval before speaking with reporters as an internal email obtained by the L.A. Times indicates.

The employees said that they believe the new policies were established to control the voices of Interior employees. They believe the move is a part of larger efforts to quell discourse about climate change, which the agency has produced research on.

[The Hill]

Trump rescinds Obama policy protecting oceans

President Trump is repealing a controversial executive order drafted by former President Obama that was meant to protect the Great Lakes and the oceans bordering the United States.

In his own executive order signed late Tuesday, Trump put a new emphasis on industries that use the oceans, particularly oil and natural gas drilling, while also mentioning environmental stewardship.

“Ocean industries employ millions of Americans and support a strong national economy,” the new order states, mentioning energy production, the military, freight transportation and other industries.

“This order maintains and enhances these and other benefits to the Nation through improved public access to marine data and information, efficient interagency coordination on ocean-related matters, and engagement with marine industries, the science and technology community, and other ocean stakeholders,” it states.

The order encourages more drilling and other industrial uses of the oceans and Great Lakes.

The order stands in contrast to Obama’s policy, which focused heavily on conservation and climate change. His policy was written in 2010, shortly after the deadly BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling explosion and 87-day oil spill.

“America’s stewardship of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes is intrinsically linked to environmental sustainability, human health and well-being, national prosperity, adaptation to climate and other environmental changes, social justice, international diplomacy, and national and homeland security,” Obama’s order stated.

[The Hill]

Why Dr. Oz’s astrology tweet was so disappointing

We’re used to Dr. Oz broadcasting outrageous, pseudoscientific ideas on his hugely popular daytime TV show, The Dr. Oz Show. The cardiac surgeon has for years devoted large amounts of airtime to peddling all sorts of suspect detoxes, diets, and other health misinformation. (He does sometimes offer good health information too.)

Now, because 2018 is weird, Oz is a member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition — an advisory board devoted to promoting healthy lifestyles across the nation. One might wonder if he’d clean up his act. But it’s not happening.

On Wednesday, he (or someone running the Twitter account in his name) tweeted out this doozy to 4.3 million followers. (It has since been deleted.)

First off, astrology isn’t real. Repeat after me: “Astrology isn’t real.” Sing it aloud: “Astrology isn’t real!”

It’s a pseudoscientific parlor game that tends to make a big deal out of insignificant coincidences. For example, Mercury in retrograde. Every few months, from our vantage point here on Earth, it looks like the planet Mercury is drawing loop-de-loops in the sky. It’s an illusion that this occurs because the Earth and Mercury are orbiting around the sun at different rates. But yet astrologers take it to mean there’s an increased chance of miscommunication, among other maladies.

Also, do you really believe that everyone born in the same month could possibly share the same cosmic destiny? What hooey!

Oz’s tweet has since been deleted. But the webpage it linked to is still up (as is another recent tweet about astrology and health). On Oz’s website, you can still find a slideshow of content explaining things like “when an Aries feels blocked, this pent-up energy may appear in the form of migraines, sinus issues, or even jaw tension.”

This is drawn from a 2017 episode of The Dr. Oz Show in which he invites astrologer Rebecca Gordon to explain the connection between horoscope and health. Gordon has been featured on the show several times. And it seems Gordon is returning to the show this week to discuss the same topic.

In 2017, Oz asked her to explain the link between horoscope and health, and she brought up Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, saying the “human body is actually shaped like a 5-pointed star.” (Does she mean that because our bodies have some star-like qualities, we’re influenced by stars? Who knows!)

The tweet is silly, and so is the astrology segment on the Dr. Oz show. And largely, yes, astrology is harmless.

It’s just always disappointing to see someone with such a big audience peddle such bunk — especially because a showman like Oz is exactly the type of person who could influence a showman like President Donald Trump.

Oz often touts alternative medicines and beliefs as ways to empower his viewers and give them hope.

In 2014, he testified before a Senate subcommittee about his role promoting “green coffee extract,” which he claimed aided in weight loss. “My job, I feel on the show, is to be a cheerleader for the audience,” he said. “And when they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look … for any evidence that might be supportive to them.”

Hope can be helpful. But it’s often a lie.

[Vox]

Trump administration nominates immigration hard-liner for migration post at State Department

The Trump administration has tapped immigration hard-liner Ronald Mortensen to be the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

Mortensen, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that advocates restricting legal and illegal immigration, previously worked for the State Department as a foreign service officer, according to his biography on the center’s website.

Mortensen’s nomination was announced by the White House on Thursday, among several others, and has to be confirmed by the Senate.

The bureau that Mortensen would be in charge of is expected to provide “protection, ease suffering, and resolve the plight of persecuted and uprooted people around the world on behalf of the American people,” according to its mission statement.

According to the State Department, this includes working with refugee and at-risk populations to offer protection and aid.

Mortensen has written several articles published on the Center for Immigration Studies website that are highly critical of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program put in place by the Obama administration that offers protection from deportation for certain individuals who were brought into the United States as children.

In a post he penned in 2009, Mortensen claims that “illegal immigration and high levels of identity theft go hand-in-hand,” “children are prime targets” of identity theft by undocumented immigrants and “Illegal aliens commit felonies in order to get jobs,” among other things.

In February 2017, Mortensen wrote that “President Trump’s Executive Order 13768, ‘Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior United States’, has shocked illegal aliens and their supporters because, unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration will not ‘exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.’ This means that the vast majority of people unlawfully in the United States are once again subject to deportation.”

[CNN]

Bill Gates: I had to explain to Trump the difference between HIV, HPV

Bill Gates discloses in newly revealed footage that President Trump twice asked him to clarify the difference between HIV and Human Papilloma Virus (HPV).

MSNBC’s “All in With Chris Hayes” aired footage Thursday night of the Microsoft founder speaking at a Gates Foundation event, telling the crowd about two meetings he had with Trump, one at Trump Tower during the presidential transition and another at the White House last year.

“Both times he wanted to know if there was a difference between HPV and HIV,” Gates said. “So I was able to explain that those were rarely confused with each other.”

Gates also said that at both meetings Trump had asked him about the negative effects of vaccines.

“In both of those two meetings, he asked me if vaccines weren’t a bad thing, because he was considering a commission to look into the ill effects of vaccines,” Gates said.

“And I said, ‘no, that’s a dead end. That would be a bad thing, don’t do that.’”

Gates said last month that Trump was “super interested” in the idea of a universal flu vaccine.

He added that Trump had asked him to be a science adviser, but that he told the president that he didn’t believe the role would be a good use of his time.

[The Hill]

Media

 

Trump angers France and Britain with his NRA speech

US President Donald Trump took aim at two of America’s closest allies in a speech at the NRA convention, saying strict gun laws failed to prevent the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and highlighting a purported increase in knife violence in London.

The comments provoked anger in both France and Britain.

France was especially incensed after Trump, while speaking at the gun rights convention in Dallas on Friday, pointed his hand as if it were a gun while describing how each of the victims in Paris was fatally shot.

“They took their time and gunned them down one by one — boom, come over here, boom, come over here, boom,” he said.

The French foreign ministry issued a statement Saturday after Trump’s comments.

“France expresses its firm disapproval of President Trump’s remarks … and calls for the respect of the memory of the victims,” it said.

Francois Hollande, who was the French President during the 2015 attacks, tweeted Saturday:

“Donald Trump’s shameful remarks and obscene histrionics say a lot about what he thinks of France and its values. The friendship between our two peoples will not be tainted by disrespect and excessiveness. All my thoughts go to the victims of November 13.”

Trump: Armed Parisians could have stopped attack

Trump went on to say things might have been different had Parisians in the cafes under attack had been armed.

“If one employee or just one patron had a gun, or if one person in this room had been there with a gun, aimed at the opposite direction, the terrorists would have fled or been shot. And it would have been a whole different story,” Trump said.

The Élysée palace responded to that comment by saying, “The free flow of arms within society does not constitute a shield against terrorist attacks. It can instead facilitate the planning of this type of attack.”

And the French ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, tweeted: “The statistics of the people killed by guns don’t convince France to change its guns laws.”

A group of about 10 men staged a series of coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, killing at least 130 people and wounding hundreds.

The attackers, armed with assault rifles and explosives, targeted six locations across the city. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks.

President says Britain has knife problem

Trump also compared an unnamed London hospital to a “war zone” in the NRA speech, saying that despite tough gun laws in the United Kingdom, it has blood all over the floors from victims of knife attacks.

“They don’t have guns. They have knives and instead there’s blood all over the floors of this hospital,” Trump said. “They say it’s as bad as a military war zone hospital … knives, knives, knives. London hasn’t been used to that. They’re getting used to that. It’s pretty tough.”

British officialdom did not push back. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s office declined to comment to CNN following Trump’s remarks.

But former UK Cabinet minister Charlie Falconer tweeted Saturday: “US murder rate over 5 times higher than the UK’s. There isn’t a person in the whole world (with the possible exception of the President of the US, and he’s probably lying) who believes the way to reduce our murder rate is to make it easier to get guns.”

It’s unclear what hospital Trump was referring to. But the BBC reported that a trauma surgeon at the Royal London Hospital, Dr. Martin Griffiths, recently told the network that his fellow doctors have compared it to an Afghan war zone.

Amid the furor over Trump’s comments, Griffiths tweeted Saturday: “Happy to invite Mr Trump to my (prestigious) hospital to meet with our mayor and police commissioner to discuss our successes in violence reduction in London.”

Professor Karim Brohi, a trauma surgeon at The Royal London Hospital and director of London’s Major Trauma System, also hit back at Trump’s speech, saying in a statement that, “The Royal London Hospital has cut the number of our young patients returning after further knife attacks from 45% to 1%.”

Brohi said that while there is more that can be done to combat knife attacks, gunshot wounds are “at least twice as lethal as knife injuries and more difficult to repair.”

Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke by phone Saturday. According to the White House, they discussed China trade, North Korea, Iran and Trump’s upcoming visit to Britain. It’s unknown whether they talked about Trump’s remarks to the NRA.

[CNN]

Judge rules against Trump administration in teen pregnancy prevention case

A federal judge in D.C. ruled Thursday that the Trump administration’s cuts to the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program were unlawful.

Last summer, the administration notified 81 organizations that their five-year grants through the program would end in 2018, rather than in 2020, prompting multiple lawsuits.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson ruled in one of those cases Thursday, ordering the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to accept and process applications of four grantees as if they had not been terminated.

“We are disappointed with today’s ruling. As numerous studies have shown, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is not working. Continuing the program in its current state does a disservice to the youth it serves and to the taxpayers who fund it. Communities deserve better, and we are considering our next steps,” said HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley in a statement. 

The Public Citizen, a consumer rights group in D.C., represented Policy and Research LLC, Project Vida Health Center, Sexual Health Initiatives for Teens and the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy — four of 81 grantees who had their funds cut short by the administration last year.

Several other lawsuits are still playing out in court.

“The court’s decision today is a rebuke of the Trump administration’s effort to kill a program that is working effectively to lower teen pregnancy rates,” said Sean Sherman, an attorney at the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Because of the court’s ruling, the four grantees will be able to continue to serve their local communities and to conduct important research. The court’s decision confirms that HHS must administer the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program in accordance with the agency’s own regulations and the requirement of reasoned decision-making.”

The administration abruptly cut the grants off last year, arguing that the programs were ineffective at curbing teenage pregnancy.

The program, created in 2010 under former President Obama, funds organizations working to reduce and prevent teen pregnancy, with a focus on reaching populations with the greatest need.

But it has long been criticized by conservatives for its focus on comprehensive sex education, which can include teaching about safe sex and abstinence.

[The Hill]

Senate Confirms Climate Change Denier To Lead NASA

The Senate on Thursday narrowly confirmed Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a former Navy pilot with no scientific credentials and who doesn’t believe humans are primarily to blame for the global climate crisis, to lead NASA.

Bridenstine will become the first elected official to hold the NASA administrator job. He joins a Cabinet already loaded with people who question the near-universal scientific consensus that climate change is real and that human activity is the primary cause.

The final vote ― which was 50-49 along party lines ― came one day after the Senate narrowly advanced Bridenstine’s nomination, thanks to an about-face from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and a key vote from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Rubio, who in September told Politico that he worried about Bridenstine’s nomination “could be devastating for the space program,” said in a statement Wednesday that he decided to support the nominee in order to avoid “a gaping leadership void” at NASA.

Much like the procedural vote on Wednesday, which was temporarily deadlocked at 49-49, Thursday’s confirmation ultimately hinged on Flake, who voted in favor only after a bit of drama that included a long discussion with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and stepping out for a phone call, as CNN’s Manu Raju reports.

Bridenstine will replace Robert Lightfoot Jr., who has been serving as acting administrator since previous NASA administrator, Charles Bolden Jr., resigned from his post in January.

In a statement following Thursday’s vote, Bridenstine said he is humbled by the opportunity. “I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the President’s vision for American leadership in space,” he said.

[Huffington Post]

Trump’s EPA quietly revamps rules for air pollution

The Trump administration has quietly reshaped enforcement of air pollution standards in recent months through a series of regulatory memos.

The memos are fulfilling the top wishes of industry, which has long called for changes to how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the nation’s factories, plants and other facilities. The EPA is now allowing certain facilities to be subject to less-stringent regulations and is letting companies use friendlier math in calculating their expected emissions.

Environmentalists and public health advocates say the memos could greatly increase levels of air pollutants like mercury, benzene and nitrogen oxides. They accuse the EPA of avoiding the transparency and public input requirements that regulatory changes usually go through.

“All of these, individually and taken together, will result in more air pollution and less enforcement of the Clean Air Act,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association.

“These were radical departures of current law when they were proposed a decade ago and they’re just as radical today,” he said, referring to the Bush-era efforts, some of which were unsuccessful, to make changes to EPA air programs.

But for the EPA and its supporters, the memos simply bring the agency back to what the relevant laws and regulations are meant to be.

“They address specific concerns that people have had for years, and just make it much simpler for people to comply — especially for existing [facilities] — to make sure they can maintain their plants and replace worn-out components and those types of things, without the threat of enforcement litigation,” said Jeff Holmstead, a former head of the EPA’s air pollution office under the George W. Bush administration who now represents regulated companies at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell.

Bill Wehrum, head of the air office under EPA chief Scott Pruitt, wrote two of the three EPA memos. He recused himself from the third memo, which Pruitt wrote.

The first memo, issued in December, states that the EPA will no longer “second guess” companies’ calculations of their expected pollution output after certain big projects under what is known as New Source Review. Under that program, the EPA reviews the changes made to a facility to decide whether they need to go through the same process as if the facility were newly built.

The December memo effectively means the EPA will usually not take action against a company for its calculations if they turn out to be wrong.

The second memo, issued in January, repeals a Clinton-era policy known as “once in, always in.” Under the previous policy, facilities could never be considered “minor” sources of hazardous pollution if they were already considered “major” sources, and subject to much stricter rules.

Now, facilities can be regulated as “minor” if their emissions drop enough.

The third memo allows companies to use a procedure known as “project netting” when applying for permits for major projects under the New Source Review program. That means companies can use a more industry-friendly emissions calculation when they argue that a particular project would reduce emissions.

President Trump added to the memos last week, signing one himself that formally asks the EPA to use more industry-friendly practices in enforcing the National Ambient Air Quality Standards program, a key Clean Air Act program for air quality nationwide.

John Walke, director for clean air at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA is working to implement the policies the Bush administration failed to finish.

“I think Mr. Wehrum has decided this is likely a one-term administration and he’s going to devote his full resources to rolling back clean air, climate and public health protections in the time available to him,” Walke said.

“The most expedient and hasty way to accomplish those rollbacks is through the regular guidance documents that we have seen so far from EPA,” he said. “Rulemakings take time, they require public notice and input and hearings, and Mr. Wehrum and Mr. Pruitt plainly have no patience for those tedious fodders.”

Walke said that, taken together, the memos could allow polluting facilities to greatly increase their emissions.

The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The focus among the memos for environmental and health advocates is the one repealing the “once in, always in” policy, and letting “major” pollution sources reduce their emissions and be regulated as “minor” ones.

A coalition of environmental groups sued the EPA to stop the policy change, arguing that it should have gone through the full regulatory process, including analysis of its environmental impact and an opportunity for public comment. Democratic states joined in with their own lawsuit.

“Instead of prioritizing the health of hard-working Americans, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt wants to let major polluters off the hook. That is unconscionable, and it is illegal,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D).

“If the ‘Once In, Always In’ policy is rescinded, children in California and around the country — particularly those who must live near the polluting plant or factory — may grow up in an environment with tons of additional hazardous pollutants in the air they breathe. California will not allow that to happen,” Becerra said.

Two environmental groups opposed to the EPA’s move have put out recent analyses of the change, focused on specific areas of the country.

The Environmental Integrity Project looked at 12 industrial plants in the Midwest and concluded they could increase their pollution to 540,000 pounds annually, a fourfold growth.

The Environmental Defense Fund looked at the Houston area, and said that 18 facilities there could increase their emissions to 900,000 pounds a year, two and a half times current levels.

Holmstead said opponents of the Trump administration’s policy are unlikely to prevail. The Supreme Court ruled in the 2015 Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association case that federal agencies can repeal policy memos with other policy memos and don’t have to go through the full regulatory process to do so.

“I think the environmental groups are going to have a real uphill battle trying to get through court that this is somehow improper,” he said. “That really does fly in the face of the Perez decision.”

As for the increase in emissions, Holmstead said environmentalists are wrong. In many cases, the new policies will allow facilities to carry out projects that reduce emissions, or simply operate under a lower paperwork burden.

“They have yet to come up with any real-world examples of how that might happen,” Holmstead said of the scenarios in which pollution might increase. “These reforms are not going to lead to pollution increases.

“I don’t think that there will be a meaningful impact one way or another.”

[The Hill]

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