Current Events in February 2009

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    Toshiba Settles TV Lamp Suit

    Bulbs failed much sooner than expected

    A final settlement has been approved for a class action lawsuit alleging that the lamps on certain Toshiba television models failed prematurely, leaving consumers with a useless box sitting in their living room and forced to wait months for a replacement lamp whose cost ran into the hundreds of dollars.

    Customers who bought Toshiba DLP sets quickly discovered that the rear-mounted bulb kept burning out, no matter how often it was replaced. The lawsuit alleged that the bulbs, which cost hundreds of dollars apiece, suffered from a systemic defect. It also alleges that Toshiba knowingly misrepresented the bulbs expected lifespan to consumers.

    The action, originally filed in 2007 by the Mason Law Firm, LLP, alleged counts of breach of express and implied warranties, as well as counts under a consumer protection law.

    Under the settlement, class members will be reimbursed for the cost of bulbs that failed during their useful service life, and the six-month warranty on replacement bulbs has been lengthened to twelve months.

    DLP televisions utilize one of several new technologies, competing with plasma and liquid crystal (LCD) sets for consumer attention. DLP, which stands for digital light processing, uses a rear-mounted lamp to project the image onto the screen. The technology is less advanced than that used by plasma and LCD TVs; as a result, the sets are typically bulkier and offer somewhat inferior picture quality, but are less expensive and thus a more attractive option for middle-class households.

    DLP sets are also theoretically known for their relative longevity, since plasmas and LCD sets degrade over time. However, the bulb issues surprised consumers who thought they were buying a long-term investment for their living rooms.

    Toshiba originally estimated the bulb would last 8,000 hours under optimal conditions. As the problem surfaced, however, customers commonly complained that their bulb burned out after 300 hours or only two months of use, on average.

    A new bulb typically runs about $300, and with installation costs, consumers can expect to fork over about $500 every time the bulb is replaced. Many customers complained of having to wait months for a replacement lamp to arrive, and several were told that Toshiba was only willing to replace the lamp once.

    In a statement, Gary Rosen, the plaintiffs lead attorney, said, This settlement accomplishes precisely what we sought to achieve when filing this litigation. It fully addresses the complaints of class members who reasonably expected their high-end DLP televisions to last several years without the need to purchase costly replacement parts.

    While the settlement is no doubt a welcome relief for consumers who have spent hundreds or even thousands to avoid missing the next installment of American Idol, customers may again find themselves out in the cold once the extended warranty runs out, as the settlement makes no mention of a bulb redesign.

    Approximately 265,000 Americans are members of the class, and the total settlement is valued at over $1 million. Class members consist of anyone who purchased a 2004 or 2005 Toshiba DLP set between January 1, 2004, and September 18, 2008. Class members warranties will automatically be extended to twelve months, regardless of whether they file a claim form.

    However, to receive a refund for previously-purchased bulbs or to receive a free replacement bulb, class members must submit a claim form within 90 days of the final settlement approval. Those who believe that may be entitled to recovery can fill out a claim form at the suits settlement website.

    A new bulb typically runs about $300, and with installation costs, consumers can expect to fork over about $500 every time the bulb is replaced....

    Senate Bill Would Rein in Payday Lenders

    Proposed legislation would cap interest rates

    While much of Washington is focused on President Obama's hugely ambitious budget, another measure has given hope to opponents of payday lending. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has proposed a cap on consumer interest rates at 36 percent APR.

    In 2006, at the urging of the U.S. Defense Department, Congress enacted an almost identical cap on loans made to active members of the military. The Pentagon complained that men and women in uniform were being victimized by payday lenders' debt spiral.

    The measure has the support of the Center for Responsible Lending, which says the cap would stop abuses by payday and car-title lenders at a time when keeping as much cash as possible in the hands of borrowers is crucial to restoring health to the U.S. economy. And it says the law would apply to credit products over which states have no jurisdiction.

    "A 36 percent cap on annual interest for consumer credit is a quick, common-sense way to restore protections that have been severely compromised in the consumer credit market," said CRL president Michael Calhoun. "It would cost taxpayers nothing and plug a $5 billion hole in the wallets of working families."

    The measure would not affect loans with reasonable interest rates and other manageable terms but would eliminate products that rely on extremely high rates — some carry 400 percent annual interest and higher — and trap consumers in debt they cannot afford.

    Ohio, Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Arizona are among states that recently revoked legal exemptions from usury caps their lawmakers once gave payday lenders. CRL says state lawmakers reimposed the usury cap after seeing firsthand the harm payday lending inflicts on borrowers, who typically can't escape quickly from such high-cost debt.

    But 35 states have yet to pass reforms that stop such practices.

    Payday loans are marketed as an advance on a borrower's next paycheck, but critics charge the terms of these small loans are designed to keep borrowers paying high interest payments over long periods of time without paying off the loan or even paying down the principal.

    The federal measure would give all citizens an equal measure of protection but also would allow state lawmakers to set even stronger protections if they deemed it necessary. Arkansas limits interest to 17 percent within its state constitution, New York makes interest above 25 percent a criminal offense, and Ohio passed a 28 percent cap last year, which was affirmed by voters in a ballot measure in November. A federal cap would not alter these state protections.

    "Recent research links predatory products like payday lending to bankruptcy, closed bank accounts, credit card delinquency and a long list of other financial hardships," said Calhoun. "There is really no excuse for failing to stop these abuses now, for the sake of working families across the nation, and for the sake of our economic stability. We see where lax consumer protections led us in the mortgage market. We should learn from that hard-taught lesson."

    Senate Bill Would Rein in Payday Lenders...

    Seniors More Vulnerable to Diarrhea

    The Healthy Geezer

    By Fred Cicetti

    February 27, 2009
    Q. I seem to get diarrhea more often now than I used to when I was younger. Any ideas why?

    Before I offer you some general information about diarrhea, I urge you to see a doctor for a diagnosis. As I tell everyone who writes to me, I'm a journalist, not a physician.

    Diarrhea is caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, certain foods, medicines and diseases. Diarrhea is a common malady that usually lasts a day or two and goes away without treatment.

    Here's a question for you. Ever notice how often diarrhea is mentioned as a side effect in the package inserts for medicines?

    Seniors often get diarrhea from medicine. This is a complex subject.

    The first issue is that seniors take a lot more medicine than younger people. The average older person takes more than four prescription drugs and two over-the-counter drugs daily. The high intake of medicine increases the odds that one or more of these medicines could give you diarrhea.

    Older people have more health problems, and these add to the mix of potential causes of diarrhea. Older bodies process drugs slowly so that they tend to stay in our bodies longer. And some drugs work differently on older people.

    Then there are the problems of drug-drug interactions and overdoses because we take so much medicine and retain it our systems.

    Diarrhea can be much more than an inconvenience. Diarrhea causes dehydration, which can be lethal to older people. With the fluid you lose from diarrhea, you also lose salts that your body needs. Diarrhea can make a victim pass more than a quart of watery stools a day.

    Dehydration symptoms include thirst, reduced urination, dark urine, dry skin, fatigue, dizziness, fainting.

    You should see a doctor if your diarrhea lasts more than 3 days, or if you have dehydration symptoms, severe abdominal or rectal pain, a fever of 102F or higher, or blood in your stools.

    In many cases of diarrhea, the only treatment needed is replacing lost fluid and salts. Adults should consume broth, non-citrus fruit juices, flat ginger ale and ice pops.

    As your condition improves, you can start eating bananas, plain rice, boiled potatoes, toast, crackers, cooked carrots. Smaller meals are recommended because they're easier to digest.

    When you have diarrhea, avoid dairy products, fat, high-fiber foods, sweets, spicy foods, carbonated beverages, chewing gum, caffeine, and any food or beverage that is hot.

    It is common to get diarrhea when visiting a foreign country. It's so common that the medical community has a name for it: traveler's diarrhea.

    The following are some tips for avoiding diarrhea away from home.


    • Drink tap water

    • Use ice cubes made from tap water.

    • Drink unpasteurized milk or dairy products made from it.

    • Eat raw fruits and vegetables

    • Eat meat or fish unless it is well-cooked and served hot

    • Eat food sold by street vendors.

    All Rights Reserved © 2008 by Fred Cicetti

    Rosacea (roh-ZAY-shee-uh) is a chronic skin disease that causes redness and swelling. It usually affects the face. It can also strike the scalp, neck, ears...

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      Virginia Considers Measure Aimed At Payday Lenders

      Lawmakers vote to close loophole enabling high-cost loans

      The Virginia General Assembly appears to be ready to take more action against payday lenders in the state.

      Lawmakers Wednesday voted to close a loophole, outlawing payday lenders from offering open-ended loans, which can have astronomical interest rates and are currently unregulated. Payday lenders began offering these open-ended loans last year after the legislature placed restrictions on traditional payday loans, which are usually for a term of two to four weeks.

      In the Virginia Senate, Republicans joined Democrats to unanimously pass the measure. It would also prevent these lenders from making payday loans for 10 years if they abandon their licenses so that they could offer open-ended loans.

      Leaders in the House say they also expect the measure to pass their chamber. Gov. Timothy Kaine is expected to sign it, though a spokesman declined to definitively say he would.

      Under the open-ended credit law, payday lenders were able to charge any rate they want as long as they charge nothing for the first 25 days.

      Very few payday lenders are expected to give up their licenses for the chance to continue making open-ended loans. Even with the restrictions, most find business to be highly profitable.

      A payday loan is a short-term loan obtained when a borrower writes a check dated in the future. To get a loan, a borrower must show the payday lender a pay stub and then write the lender a check for the cash loan. The check is usually made out for a later date — often one month and one day after the date of the loan. The lender gives the borrower cash in return, but for an amount less than the value of the check.

      The difference between the amount for which the consumer writes the check and the amount the consumer is paid in cash is the lender's profit, or finance charge. Payday lenders often charge between $15 and $50 for every $90 borrowed, which only covers the few short weeks of the loan term. After that, the consumer must pay the lender back or pay the lender even more in finance charges.

      Most of the time, a consumer doesn't have the funds in his or her checking account to cover the post-dated check when it is written, and may not have the funds when it comes time for the check to be cashed. When payment comes due, if consumers cant cover the check, they are often encouraged to roll the overdue loan into a new loan, incurring new fees and increasing the amount of the loan. This loan "flipping" easily can lead to the consumer using most or all of the money borrowed to pay the lender's costly fees.

      Virginia Considers Measure Aimed At Payday Lenders...

      Congress Takes Up Boomer Retirement Woes

      Many boomers having second thoughts about retiring

      By Mark Huffman

      February 26, 2009
      The Senate Special Committee on Aging is looking into 401(k) target-date funds, with some members calling for new protections for account holders.

      At a hearing Wednesday, witnesses offered insight into the myriad factors that are affecting the ability of baby boomers to retire, including the weakened performance of 401(k) funds, the instability of housing values, and the challenges of the labor market for older workers, all of which are contributing to diminished prospects for a secure retirement.

      The panel took a particularly close look at 401(k) target-date funds, which are designed to gradually shift to more conservative investments as workers approach retirement. Committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) also unveiled findings from a Committee investigation of 401(k) funds designed for people planning to retire in 2010, which revealed a wide variety of objectives, portfolio composition and risk within same-year target-date funds.

      They heard about the dangers excessive risk can pose for those on the brink of retirement: one 2010 target-date fund lost 41 percent in 2008. In conjunction with the hearing, Kohl sent letters to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Schapiro, urging them to immediately begin a review of target date funds and begin work on regulations to protect plan participants.

      Despite their growing popularity, there are absolutely no regulations regarding the composition of target date funds, said Kohl. With more and more Americans relying on 401(k)s and other defined contribution plans as their primary source for retirement savings, we need to make sure their savings are well-protected with strong oversight and regulation.

      Target-date funds are designed to simplify long-term investing by automatically adjusting to more conservative investments as the fund approaches a set date. By authority of the Pension Protection Act of 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued regulations allowing target-date funds to be used as a qualified default investment alternative in employer-sponsored retirement plans.

      However, under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and DOL guidelines, there are no requirements regarding the composition of target date funds and the appropriate ratio of stocks and bonds as the fund nears its target.

      As a result of the decision to allow target-date funds to be used as QDIAs, they are increasingly used as the primary investment option for millions of Americans. Target date funds only made up roughly three percent of defined contribution savings in 2006, but are expected to increase to 20 percent in 2010. By 2015, it is expected that more than one-third of all defined contribution savings will be in target date funds.

      A recent study found that more than half of affluent 60-year-olds are revamping their retirement plans.

      Congress Takes Up Boomer Retirement Woes...

      Anti-Aging Becomes Top Facial Skincare Seller in 2008

      Times may be bad, but that doesn't mean you have to look bad

      February 26, 2009
      A new report from market research firm Mintel finds Americans are pouring more money into the fountain of youth known as anti-aging skincare.

      During 2008, sales of anti-aging skincare products rose to over $1.6 billion. In fact, anti-aging sales have surpassed sales of facial cleansers, which garnered nearly $570 million last year.

      The market for anti-aging skincare has grown rapidly over the past couple years. US sales rose 13 percent from 2006 to 2008, outpacing general facial skincare sales, which grew less than 11 percent. Mintel expects the market to remain robust over the next five years, growing some 20 percent through 2013.

      "Anti-aging won't fall to the recession," said Kat Fay, senior beauty and personal care product analyst at Mintel. "Looking young is extremely important to many women, especially Baby Boomers, and it's not an issue they're willing to compromise on because of tightened budgets. Many women see anti-aging skincare as a reasonably priced investment in their appearance and well-being."

      According to Mintel's Global New Products Database, nearly a third of US facial skincare product launches tracked in 2008 boasted anti-aging claims. Globally, one in four included such claims.

      "Manufacturers see the growing demand for anti-aging benefits and they're responding accordingly with a constant flow of new products. The latest launches are more detailed and scientific in their claims, ingredients and projected benefits," said Fay.

      Mintel Beauty Innovation, which monitors new beauty and personal care product launches globally, has seen recent advancements in the science and marketing of anti-aging skincare.

      Sirtuins are a new area of activity: these naturally occurring enzymes are thought to boost cell longevity and therefore, provide anti-aging benefits.

      For example, Natura Biss's premium skincare product, The Cure, contains peptides that modulate sirtuins. It claims to prevent premature aging and wrinkles. Este Lauder's new Time Zone Line and Wrinkle Reducing Creme likewise boasts "Sirtuin EX1 Technology" and claims to stimulate proteins for a more youthful look.

      Anti-Aging Becomes Top Facial Skincare Seller in 2008...

      Florida Court Blocks Loan Modification Company's Fees

      Order prevents charging of up-front payments to help homeowners

      A Florida court has issued an order temporarily prohibiting an Orlando loan modification company from charging up-front fees to homeowners for its services.

      According to the order issued by the Orange County Circuit Court, FMA Servicing, Inc. is barred from charging homeowners any fee in advance of providing loan modification services. FMA Servicing must comply with written notice requirements contained in the Foreclosure Rescue Fraud Prevention Act.

      Attorney General Bill McCollum's Economic Crimes Division opened its investigation into FMA Servicing in December and filed a lawsuit against the company earlier this month.

      The investigation revealed FMA Servicing, which does business under the name Financial Management Advisors, charges an up-front fee as high as $2,500 to homeowners seeking loan modification services.

      The company subsequently refused to change its business practices even after receiving notification of the Foreclosure Fraud Rescue Prevention Act, which took effect on October 1, 2008.

      The lawsuit charges violations of the Foreclosure Fraud Rescue Prevention Act, as well as false and misleading advertising and other deceptive and unfair trade practices. The injunction against FMA Servicing will remain in effect until the resolution of the case. No further hearings are set at this time.

      The Foreclosure Fraud Rescue Prevention Act protects homeowners who are in foreclosure or nearing foreclosure from companies offering potentially fraudulent foreclosure "rescue" services.

      Specifically, it governs companies providing foreclosure-related rescue services including loan modification and short sale services. These companies are prohibited from charging homeowners an up-front fee for these services and must provide homeowners with a written agreement.

      McCollum recommends that homeowners exercise caution when seeking help to prevent mortgage foreclosure. Generally, they should first attempt to negotiate with their lender before turning to outside help.

      Florida Court Blocks Loan Modification Company's Fees...

      Source of Salmonella Contamination in Peanut Butter May Be Found

      Texas plant sample tests positive for strain that caused nationwide outbreak

      A sample of peanut meal from the Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA) Texas plant has tested positive for the same strain of salmonella linked to the nationwide outbreak that has sickened hundreds of people and may have caused the deaths of nine others, state health officials announced Wednesday.

      The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) said a sample of peanut meal collected on February 12 at PCA's Plainview, Texas plant contained Salmonella Typhimurium.

      Texas authorities shut down that plant on February 9 after inspectors found dead rodents, bird feathers, and rodent excrement in a crawl space above the facility's production area. That same day, state officials recalled all peanut products made at the plant since 2005.

      This is the second PCA plant where samples of peanut products have tested positive for the strain of salmonella linked to the nationwide outbreak.

      In January, an inspection by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the company's Blakely, Georgia, plant revealed internal tests of a sample of peanut paste tested positive for Salmonella Typhimurium. That sample, identified as lot #8278, was made at the plant on September 26, 2008 and later shipped into commerce.

      The inspection also revealed the company shipped peanut products from that plant — 12 times since 2007 — that had tested positive for fours strains of salmonella. FDA inspectors also found unsanitary conditions at the plant, including roaches, mold, and a leaking roof.

      According to the Associated Press, PCA shipped products between its Georgia and Texas plants. The company mainly shipped "seasoned" products — including honey roasted peanuts and hot and spicy peanuts — from its Georgia plant to its facility in Texas, the wire service said. PCA shipped peanut meal from its Texas plant to the one in Georgia.

      FDA officials said they will continue investigating the current salmonella outbreak, but are confident they've found the likely culprit.

      "The FDA's investigation is ongoing and the agency is looking at both the PCA Blakely plant and the PCA Plainview (Texas) plant as sources of contamination for the outbreak," Stephanie Kwisnek told the Associated Press.

      Meanwhile, PCA remains the focus of a criminal investigation for knowingly shipping products it knew had tested positive for salmonella. It also faces dozens of civil lawsuits.

      Damaging evidence has already surface against the company, including e-mails that indicate the company's president, Stewart Parnell, ordered products he knew were tainted with salmonella to be shipped anyway. Some of those potentially-tainted products made their way to poor schoolchildren and victims of recent disasters.

      Earlier this month, Parnell refused to answer questions about the salmonella outbreak from the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee. A few days later, the company filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

      The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal the salmonella outbreak has sickened 666 people in 45 states.

      While PCA's products were not sold directly to consumers, food manufacturers used the company's peanut butter and paste to make cookies, crackers, cereal, ice cream, energy bars, and even pet treats.

      In recent months, more than 200 companies have pulled nearly 2,700 products off store shelves because they contain potentially tainted PCA products. Many continue to pull products off the market almost every day, making this one of the country's largest food-related recalls.

      None of the national brands of peanut butter — including Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan — are included in any recalls. The makers of those products continue to remind consumers their peanut butter is safe to eat.

      Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems, health officials say.

      Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

      FDA officials warn salmonella can be transferred from pets to humans. They advise pet owners to thoroughly wash their hands before and after feeding treats to pets.

      Consumers should also discard any products recalled in this salmonella outbreak, officials said.

      The FDA now has a database that consumers can search to see if their favorite products are involved in any recalls.

      Source of Salmonella Contamination in Peanut Butter May Be Found...

      Salsa Bicycles Recalled

      CroMoto S.U.L. handlebar stems were also sold individually

      February 26, 2009
      Salsa Bicycles is recalling about 8,600 bicycles because the handlebar stems can crack or break, posing a fall hazard to the consumer.

      Salsa Bicycles has received three reports of handlebar stems breaking. One incident resulted in a rider suffering a broken wrist.

      This recall involves all CroMoto S.U.L. stems sold as individual aftermarket units and on these models of complete Salsa bicycles: Ala Carte, El Mariachi, Casseroll Triple, Casseroll Single and La Cruz. The aftermarket stems are black and have the word 'Salsa' painted on the extension. The complete bike stems are painted to match the bike model color and have the word 'Salsa' painted on the extension. The recalled stems range from 75 through 105-degree rise and extension length from 90 to 120mm.

      Please visit the firm's web site at for a complete list of model numbers and names included in this recall.

      The recalled items were sold by specialty bicycle retailers nationwide from November 2007 through December 2008 for between $880 and $1870 for complete bikes. The aftermarket stems were sold at specialty bicycle retailers nationwide and via web sites from March 2008 through December 2008 for between $60 and $65. They were made in Taiwan.

      Consumers should stop riding these bicycles immediately and contact an authorized Salsa Bicycles dealer for a free inspection and replacement stem.

      For additional information, contact Salsa Bicycles toll-free at (877) 774-6208 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, or visit the firm's Web site at

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      Salsa Bicycles Recalled...

      Fortunoff Bankruptcy Gift Card Settlement

      $8.5 million in gift cards, credit slips at stake

      New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo today announced an agreement with the liquidators of the Fortunoff jewelry and furniture chain to honor consumer gift cards and credit slips through March 8, as the company pursues bankruptcy.

      It is estimated that there are approximately $8.5 million worth of unused gift cards and credit slips currently in circulation.

      Earlier this month, Fortunoff stopped accepting gift cards even though the stores remained open. After a flood of complaints, Cuomo urged the company, and any liquidation company that takes over the stores going-out-of-business sales, to honor customer gift cards.

      An unfortunate side-effect of this ailing economy is the number of stores weve seen abruptly forced to close their doors in the face of bankruptcy, said Attorney General Cuomo. When this happens, however, it should not be at the expense of consumers, who are already over-stretching their budgets to make ends meet. Fortunoffs liquidator is doing the right thing here, which we hope will serve as an industry example.

      Cuomo urged consumers with Fortunoff gift cards to use them before the March 8 deadline. While all purchases made during the going-out-of-business sale are final, the liquidators will also honor Fortunoffs return and exchange policy through March 10 for items purchased before February 25.

      Fortunoffs going-out-of-business sale will be operated by a group of liquidating companies that will bring in additional goods, including jewelry, to sell alongside Fortunoffs existing inventory.

      Consumers should check item tags to determine whether the items were brought in by the liquidator or were part of Fortunoffs inventory, as clear identification of all liquidator-added merchandise is required. Additionally, consumers should do product and brand research and price comparison before making purchases.

      Liquidation tips

      In light of the current economic crisis, the Attorney Generals Office provides the following tips about going-out-of-business sales:

      • Most going-out-of-business sales are operated by liquidation companies that bring in outside goods to sell along with the stores existing stock. It is difficult to know if discounts on these outside goods provide real savings, since the products were never offered in the stores at the listed regular price.

      • Discounts offered at the beginning of going-out-of-business sales may be smaller than discounts offered immediately prior to the liquidation sale or discounts offered by competing retailers. Consumers should comparison shop to see if they are indeed getting a good deal.

      • Purchases made during going-out-of-business sales are final. Consumers may want to choose products that come with a manufacturers warranty that offers protection against defects and damages. In addition, consumers should also pay by credit card, as many credit card companies offer consumer protections for refunds for defective or damaged products.

      • Consumers should research the products and their prices from other retailers ahead of time to see if they are indeed getting a good deal.

      • While it may be tempting to wait for the end of a liquidation sale when discounts are greater, often consumers who do so are disappointed by empty shelves. Consumers with gift cards should not wait to use them.

      As increasing numbers of retailers shut their doors, more consumers will be holding unusable gift cards. While some stores continue to honor gift cards even after filing for bankruptcy, others, like Fortunoff, stop accepting gift cards or lack the funds or merchandise to honor them.

      When stores stop accepting gift cards or shut down altogether, consumers may only be able to receive reimbursement for the value of their unused gift cards if they file a Proof of Claim in the retailers bankruptcy proceeding.

      In bankruptcy proceedings, gift card holders are considered unsecured creditors and must stand in line behind secured creditors. By filing a Proof of Claim, gift card holders do have what is referred to as a priority claim and may be able to receive reimbursement for the value of their cards.

      While such recoveries are more likely to happen in Chapter 11 reorganization, consumers' chances of receiving value are significantly diminished if there is a liquidation.

      However, consumers chances of receiving value are significantly diminished if there is liquidation.

      Consumers angry

      Besides complaining to Cuomo's office, many New York-area consumers let have an earful.

      I still had $1,000 left in gift cards but the sales person told me that I still had time before they closed because their court date was not [until Feb. 22]," said Grace of Staten Island. "I returned on Friday to use the rest of my gift card and I got the surprise that they were no longer accepting them. I was sick to hear that because nobody ever warned me.

      In addition to alienating longtime customers, Fortunoffs also managed to taint a few otherwise happy nuptials.

      Nicole of Verona, NJ told she received a $125 gift card given to me by my family member as a gift for my wedding. It [saddens] me to think that beautiful day is tainted due to Fortunoffs. Similarly, S of Milford, CT writes, My husband and I are left with over $200 in gift cards from our wedding. Gift cards should be honored if they were purchased prior to the filing of bankruptcy.

      While the loss of a gift card, even a high-priced one, might seem trivial to some, every loss hurts consumers as the economy continues to circle the drain. As Donna of North Caldwell, NJ, put it, I am out about $350. It was a gift for my birthday. Now nothing. In light of all the other disastrous news this really, really hurts.


      It's just the latest piece of bad news for NRDC, the private equity firm that acquired Fortunoff in February 2008, essentially saving the 85-year-old chain after its first bankruptcy filing. At the time, NRDC announced plans to spend $100 million in an effort to restore Fortunoffs status as a retail leader. Unfortunately, NRDC struggled to revive the chain as bad economic news rolled in throughout 2008.

      If things werent bad enough, two years earlier the firm acquired home goods chain Linens n Things, which has also since gone bankrupt. Analysts say that NRDCs poor track record doesnt bode well for the other chains it controls, including Lord & Taylor, another longtime retailer., a website that offers gift cards from over 200 retailers, had earlier said it would consider independent relief for consumers if Fortunoff decides not to honor the cards.

      Fortunoff Bankruptcy Wipes Out Gift Cards...

      Massachusetts Settles Charges Against Chubb

      Company was accused of $3 million deal to garner favorable business

      The Chubb Corporation has reached a settlement with the state of Massachusetts resolving allegations that Chubb's compensation practices offered improper incentives and enabled Boston-based insurance brokerage firm William Gallagher Associates Insurance Brokers, Inc. to direct business to Chubb.

      As part of the settlement, Chubb will pay $182,815 to WGA customers and $56,196 to the Commonwealth.

      "We are pleased that Chubb cooperated during our investigation of WGA and that it has agreed to pay restitution to customers affected by WGA's alleged abuse of these incentives," said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

      The Attorney General's Office filed a lawsuit against WGA on December 19, 2007, in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging that WGA defrauded its customers by charging undisclosed fees and deceiving customers concerning its compensation practices.

      According to the complaint, Chubb loaned WGA in excess of $3 million, but offered to forgive this loan and any accrued interest if WGA directed enough profitable business to Chubb. Chubb also invited WGA to invest in a Chubb-sponsored reinsurance company through which WGA insured a portion of numerous insurance policies belonging to WGA's clients.

      Reinsurance is insurance that companies like Chubb purchase to protect themselves against their policyholders' claims. According to the complaint, WGA's participation in Chubb's reinsurance program turned WGA into a reinsurer with a financial interest in keeping its customers' highly profitable insurance policies with Chubb.

      Chubb also provided WGA with a "trust fund" that WGA could utilize to lower Chubb's quoted premiums. Chubb allegedly maintained the trust fund so that WGA could draw against it to offer Chubb's insurance policies at lower prices in situations in which Chubbs premium quotes were higher than the quotes issued by other insurers. The Attorney General's Office said it believes that WGA utilized this trust fund to distort competitive bidding processes.

      This isn't the first time WGA has been involved in a settlement with the Massachusetts Attorney Generals Office. In December 2007 the company returned $3,017,003 to its customers, paid $925,000 to the Commonwealth, adopted conduct reforms and submitted to a binding audit. As a result of the audit, which was completed in November, 2008, WGA proffered an additional $330,624 in restitution to customers and paid $80,000 to the Commonwealth.

      Massachusetts Settles Charges Against Chubb...

      Capital One Interest Rate Hikes Anger Customers

      Even those with high credit scores are affected

      Consumers with good credit ratings take a lot of pride in their ranking, and don't take kindly to credit card companies taking actions that could negatively impact those credit scores.

      So when credit card companies recently began to change the terms for many card holders, in advance of new government rules that would outlaw some of these changes, consumers have reacted with anger. Capital One is provoking some of the most heated reaction.

      "I received a notice from Capital One Bank stating the 4.9 percent APR on the Mastercard I have had for six years will be increasing to 13.9 percent," Helen, of Boca Raton, Florida, told "I have always paid my bill in total and on time if not early. I called the customer service line and they very politely read the 'cue cards' stating it was a "business decision due to the current economy."

      Helen wanted to know if Capital One could raise her rate for no reason. In fact, they can. After June 2010 they won't be able to do so under new rules adopted by the Federal Reserve, which may explain why they are doing so now.

      Theresa of Richmond, Virginia, has a similar story. She said she recently received a "change in terms" notice on the Capital One card she had been using for seven years.

      "The notice stated my rate is increasing from 8.9 percent to 17.9 percent with the option of opting out and having my account closed," she said. "I have a 790 FICO score and made large payments of my account every month. My current balance is only $700. I have never, ever been late on this account or any other account. I, like everyone else, was really angry when I received my notice."

      Capital One, along with many other credit card companies, are reacting to the economy. Not only have they changed terms for delinquent customers, they are changing terms for some of their best customers who have very low rates.

      Analysts say the companies are trying to offset current and anticipated losses from credit card delinquencies. Credit card delinquencies rose to record highs in January, according to Fitch Ratings. It reported payments more than 60 days late rose to 3.75 percent.

      Consumers can call and complain to Capital One and other credit card issuers all they want, but the companies are unlikely to budge. They have concluded raising a nine percent rate to 18 percent is worth it, even if they end up losing the customer.

      In late 2008, federal agencies announced new credit card rules that would prevent companies from taking some of the actions currently drawing complaints, but gave banks a year and a half to phase in the new rules. While applauding federal banking regulators for finalizing rules to curb some of the most abusive credit card lending practices, the Consumer Federation of America last December expressed concern that the requirements were too slow in taking effect. The group called on Congress to provide additional consumer protections to rein in abuses not addressed by the regulators.

      "Federal regulators have taken an important first step to stop credit card companies from using hidden traps and tricks to drive up the amount of debt consumers owe," said Travis B. Plunkett, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America. "However, it is not helpful to consumers struggling to pay off hefty debts in the middle of a recession, to give credit card companies the green light to continue to mislead and overcharge consumers for another year and a half."

      Meanwhile, consumers continue to fume about their treatment. Philip, of Phoenix, notes that Capital One, which received government bailout money because of its poor business practices, is cutting him off, even though he has a high credit score and currently carries no balance on his Capital One card.

      "This type of behavior from a company begging my government for money is appalling," he said. "They need customers like us to stay, not drive us away."

      Consumers with good credit ratings take a lot of pride in their ranking, and don't take kindly to credit card companies taking actions that could negativel...

      Ticketmaster Settles Bruce Springsteen Ticket Dust-Up

      Ticketmaster agrees to "wall off" reseller

      The state of New Jersey has reached a settlement with Ticketmaster to resolve more than 2,000 complaints from consumers who say they were unfairly denied tickets to two concerns by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

      The complaints were filed with the State Division of Consumer Affairs in connection with the sale of tickets to concerts scheduled for May at the Izod Center in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

      The agreement also mandates reforms to Ticketmaster's business practices.

      The settlement creates a random drawing for 1,000 consumers who filed complaints against Ticketmaster with the Division of Consumer Affairs as of February 17th, to purchase two tickets each to one of the two concerts scheduled for May 21st and May 23rd at the Izod Center.

      In addition, those consumers who filed complaints with the state but are not chosen in the random drawing for the opportunity to purchase tickets to the May concerts will be given a $100 Ticketmaster gift certificate and will be given the opportunity to purchase two tickets to a future Springsteen concert in New Jersey prior to a general ticket sale.

      For those consumers identified by the state and Ticketmaster whose credit cards were charged for ticket purchases but the transactions were never completed because of technical problems, Ticketmaster agreed to complete the transaction and provide consumers with the tickets.

      For those consumers identified by the state and Ticketmaster who within the first five hours that tickets went on sale went from the No Tickets Found page of Ticketmaster s primary website to Ticketmaster s wholly-owned subsidiary TicketsNow.Com and purchased tickets at a higher price, Ticketmaster agreed to refund the difference between the purchase price and the face value of the tickets.

      The settlement, known formally as an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, places a wall between Ticketmaster and its ticket re-selling subsidiary for at least a year for all shows and entertainment events Ticketmaster handles.

      After the conclusion of the year, Ticketmaster will need prior approval from the New Jersey Attorney General for any links between its No Tickets Found Internet page to its TicketsNow re-sale website.

      The connection between Ticketmaster and TicketsNow has produced a number of consumer complaints. Meleah, of Livington, New Jersey, says she was seeking tickets for the Jersey Boys on Broadway, when Ticketmaster's site referred her to Tickets Now.

      I paid top dollar for tickets only to learn when they arrive that I was charged more then double face value, she told "I am reporting this only after hearing what ocurred with the Springsteen tickets on CNN News."

      Ticketmaster agreed not to engage in paid Internet search advertising that would lead consumers searching for Ticketmaster on Internet search engines to its TicketsNow re-sale site.

      In addition, the company confirmed and agreed that all tickets it receives for sale to the general public will be sold on its primary market website. It also agreed not to allow the sale or offer of sale of any tickets on the re-selling website until the initial sale begins on its primary website.

      Equal chance

      This settlement resolves a significant issue for thousands of loyal Springsteen fans in the Garden State who believe that Ticketmaster tilted the playing field against their efforts to purchase tickets to the May concerts, said Attorney General Anne Milgram. Everyone deserves an equal chance to buy tickets on a primary ticket selling website and shouldn t be steered to a re-selling website where the prices can be substantially higher.

      The 2,000 tickets -- 1,000 tickets for each show -- are being made available for purchase through the random drawing by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. All Ticketmaster fees and service charges will be waived.

      An investigation by the Attorney General and the Division of Consumer Affairs into Ticketmaster s sales practices began with the immediate uproar over the sale of Springsteen tickets when they were made available for sale on Feb. 2.

      The Division of Consumer Affairs created a link on its website to receive complaints. As of Tuesday, Feb. 17, approximately 2,200 complaints were filed concerning the Springsteen concerts. Complaints filed by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 17, will be covered by the agreement.

      Consumers complained that sales were blocked on the Ticketmaster website and they were re-directed to the ticket re-selling website called where tickets were available at substantially higher prices.

      Ticketmaster Settles Bruce Springsteen Ticket Dust-Up...

      Fortunoff Bankruptcy Wipes Out Gift Cards

      Little to no warning for New York-area shoppers

      As Long Island-based Fortunoff faces bankruptcy for the second time in as many years, angry consumers are left to ponder what theyll do with their now-worthless gift cards.

      A weak holiday sale season, along with lingering issues from a separate bankruptcy filing last year, forced the once-mighty jewelry and home goods chain to file for bankruptcy protection earlier this month. As it prepares to liquidate, the company has announced that it will no longer honor customers gift cards, leaving those who have yet to use their holiday presents out in the cold.

      Fortunoff originally planned to stop honoring gift cards on Feb. 5, the day it sought protection from creditors. However, due to a miscommunication with stores, the retailer extended the cutoff date to Feb. 17. Lori Rhodes, a spokeswoman for Fortunoffs parent company, NRDC, told Bloomberg News that the corporation is negotiating with creditors to find a way to honor the cards.

      In any event, customers arent happy. Given the high price of most Fortunoff items, many consumers had cards totaling hundreds of dollars. Shoppers are also stung by the chains failure to warn them of the impending cutoff, especially since many were Fortunoff regulars for decades.

      Grace of Staten Island describes a typical experience: I still had $1,000 left in gift cards but the sales person told me that I still had time before they closed because their court date was not [until Feb. 22]. I returned on Friday to use the rest of my gift card and I got the surprise that they were no longer accepting them. I was sick to hear that because nobody ever warned me.

      In addition to alienating longtime customers, Fortunoffs also managed to taint a few otherwise happy nuptials.

      Nicole of Verona, NJ told she received a $125 gift card given to me by my family member as a gift for my wedding. It [saddens] me to think that beautiful day is tainted due to Fortunoffs. Similarly, S of Milford, CT writes, My husband and I are left with over $200 in gift cards from our wedding. Gift cards should be honored if they were purchased prior to the filing of bankruptcy.

      While the loss of a gift card, even a high-priced one, might seem trivial to some, every loss hurts consumers as the economy continues to circle the drain. As Donna of North Caldwell, NJ, put it, I am out about $350. It was a gift for my birthday. Now nothing. In light of all the other disastrous news this really, really hurts.

      Ultimately, bankruptcy law allows a corporation which files for bankruptcy protection to stop honoring gift cards. The situation may become more commonplace as the troubled economy threatens to drive more chains out of business. When electronics specialist The Sharper Image went under last year, it too refused to honor gift cards. After widespread public outrage, the retailer relented and agreed to accept the cards, but only if consumers spent at least twice their value.

      It's just the latest piece of bad news for NRDC, the private equity firm that acquired Fortunoff in February 2008, essentially saving the 85-year-old chain after its first bankruptcy filing. At the time, NRDC announced plans to spend $100 million in an effort to restore Fortunoffs status as a retail leader. Unfortunately, NRDC struggled to revive the chain as bad economic news rolled in throughout 2008.

      If things werent bad enough, two years earlier the firm acquired home goods chain Linens n Things, which has also since gone bankrupt. Analysts say that NRDCs poor track record doesnt bode well for the other chains it controls, including Lord & Taylor, another longtime retailer.

      At least one independent gift card vendor is weighing its responsibility to consumers., a website that offers gift cards from over 200 retailers, will reportedly consider independent relief for consumers if Fortunoff decides not to honor the cards.

      In bankruptcy court, meanwhile, a group of six liquidators won an yesterday entitling them to run the liquidation process, which could start later this week.

      Fortunoff Bankruptcy Wipes Out Gift Cards...

      Experts Worry About Web's Impact On Teens

      Social networking sites seen as potential hazard

      Adults have long worried about the younger generation's latest enthusiasms, and today more and wore of that concern is focused on computers and the Internet. In particular, the growing use of social networking sites is causing alarm among parents, educators and, increasingly, health experts.

      The latest warning comes from Dr. Susan Greenfield, a noted British neuroscientist, who says sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are shortening attention spans, encouraging instant gratification, and making young people more self-focused.

      Greenfield believes extended time using these sites is actually rewiring the brain. She told Britain's Daily Mail that, just as babies need constant reassurance that they exist, the networking Websites encourage the same impulse in teens.

      My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment, she told the newspaper.

      Meanwhile, Taiwanese researchers suggest parents and educators pay more attention to childrens online habits because Internet-addicted teens seem more prone to aggression. However, Americans who study violence are not ready to make any conclusions about a possible link.

      The study does not demonstrate that one behavior caused the other, said Dewey Cornell, a professor of education at the University of Virginia.

      Even so, he said, other research shows that persons who play violent video games will be more prone to have aggressive thoughts, feelings and actions.

      Internet addiction

      Internet addiction itself remains a controversial topic more than a decade after it was first described. Some mental health specialists refuse to recognize its existence, although a number of rehabilitation centers treat people who say they suffer from it.

      In the new study, researchers led by Chih-Hung Ko, M.D., from Kaohsiung Medical University, gave questionnaires to 9,405 adolescents and asked about their Internet activity and behaviors. The study appears online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

      The researchers deemed 25 percent of the male students and 13 percent of females to be Internet addicts based on a commonly used scale.

      Thirteen percent of all female students and 32 percent of all males reported engaging in aggressive behavior — such as threatening or hurting others — within the last year, compared with 37 percent of those suffering from Internet addiction.

      The researchers, who were not available for comment, wrote in the study that chatting online, playing video games and visiting sexually oriented Web sites could provide opportunities for teens to observe, experience and try aggressive behaviors resulting in positive outcome, such as identification in a group, being a hero or winning in games.

      Brad Bushman, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said the study does not allow conclusions about which came first — Internet addiction or aggression.

      It could be that using the Internet causes people to behave more aggressively or it could be that aggressive people seek out the Internet, he said. Or some other third factor could cause both people with poor social skills dont have any friends, so they spend a lot of time on the Internet and cant resolve conflicts in non-aggressive ways.

      Adults have long worried about the younger generation's latest enthusiasms, and today more and more of that concern is focused on computers and the Interne...

      Fisher-Price Recalls 3-in-1 High Chairs

      February 24, 2009
      Fisher-Price is recalling about 24,000 3-in-1 high chairs. The seat can fall backwards from high chair frame if the booster seat release is unlatched while the child is in the product. Also, the seat back can detach if not fully snapped in place, posing a fall hazard and risk of serious injury to young children.

      The firm has received one report of a seat back detaching and child falling out, resulting in a skull fracture.

      This recall involves the 3-in-1 High Chair to Booster, which converts from a high chair to a toddler booster seat. It includes a removable tray, height adjustment and folds for storage. The product number (P5369) is printed on the side of the seat, on a label on the seat pad, and on the products packaging.

      The high chairs, made in Mexico, were sold exclusively at: Target stores nationwide from December 2008 through March 2009 for about $100.

      Consumers should stop using the recalled high chairs immediately and contact Fisher-Price for instructions and a free repair kit.

      For additional information, contact Fisher-Price at (800) 432-5437 anytime or visit the firms Web site at

      The recall is being conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).

      Fisher-Price Recalls 3-in-1 High Chairs...

      Asthma Patients Get Scant Response to Problems with New Inhalers

      Government agencies "sympathize" but offer little more than that

      New inhalers, like this Proventil model, are powered by non-aerosol propellants

      Asthma patients nationwide are getting little more than sympathy — and not much of that — from government agencies and health officials in response to their complaints about the new ban on chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) albuterol inhalers and the life-threatening problems many say they are having with the environmentally-friendly hydroflouroalkane (HFA) rescue inhalers.

      In just the last few days, has heard from more than 125 asthma and pulmonary patients who are outraged and frightened by the government's "life-threatening" ban on CFC inhalers —which took effect on December 31, 2008 —and the ineffectiveness of the new HFA alternative inhalers.

      So far, Congressional leaders have not responded to our inquiries about patients' concerns.

      At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a spokeswoman said she empathizes with patients' concerns, but said it would be more appropriate for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to comment.

      Meanwhile, a clinical pharmacist at the University of Florida called the ban on CFC inhalers "political," and said he has also heard reports that asthma and pulmonary patients are having trouble adjusting to the new HFA inhalers.

      He suggested patients work on their "technique" to get more relief because studies have shown many people don't use the "emergency" HFA inhalers correctly. He also downplayed efforts to bring back CFC inhalers, saying there's a "tremendous" shortage of the Freon propellant.

      But the founder of a California-based organization trying to get CFCs inhalers back on the market disagrees with that supply assessment.

      While politicians stall and agencies stonewall, continues to hear from angry and scared asthma and pulmonary patients. Not one of them has expressed support for the ban on the CFC "rescue" inhalers or told us the HFA-models are an effective alternative.

      Making matters worse

      In fact, most told us the HFA inhalers made their asthmas worse.

      Many also said they're shocked by what they call the FDA's "lack of concern" and "ignorance" about this issue especially its position that pulmonary patients will just have to get used to the HFA inhalers and remember to take deep breaths when using the devices.

      "The thing the FDA doesn't realize is that to say we need to take a deeper breath to make the new HFA inhalers work is almost an oxymoron," an asthma patient in Litchfield Park, Arizona, told us. "If we could take deep breaths, we wouldn't need the inhalers. We need medicine that opens the passages quickly ... with little effort ... so that we can breathe deeply and function as normal people do."

      Another asthma patient in Virginia voiced harsher concerns about the FDA's comments that patients remember to breathe deep with the HFA inhalers.

      "This is absolutely total ignorance," says Roger M. of Glen Allen, Virginia. "People having an asthma attack and in a panic state cannot breathe in deeply. People with COPD and limited lung function —when in need of medication —cannot breathe in deeply. This decision needs to be reversed, but it may be too late because the drug companies most probably will not resume production on these old products."

      He added: "Recent times have shown the (incompetence-plagued) FDA's inability to properly understand and evaluate these life altering decisions. If allowed to stand, these bureaucrats and their abettors will have successfully reduced the quality of life for millions of lung disease sufferers throughout the world."

      Breathe through a straw

      Another consumer who responded to our investigation suggested FDA officials try to "breathe through a straw for a week" so they could understand the fears pulmonary patients have when they're gasping for air.

      "I contacted the FDA, which replied saying I should speak to my doctor," says Rose Anne S. of Las Vegas. "What can the doctor do but prescribe another HFA inhaler that will do the same thing. It appears that the FDA really doesn't care. With all my heart I hope someone on the President's staff is monitoring this situation.

      "Believe me I want these HFAs to work," she added, "but they don't. As soon as I puff on them, my breathing gets worse. I'm allergic to alcohol so all it does it make it worse."

      As we've reported, metered-dose CFC inhalers are —as of December 31, 2008 —banned in the United States under an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

      The FDA and other supporters of this 1987 agreement say the CFC propellant in the inhalers damages the ozone.

      "CFCs reduce the amount of ozone in the ozone layer that surrounds the earth and protects the earth against the sun's harmful rays," the agency wrote. "The loss of ozone can increase the risk of skin cancer, cataracts, and other harmful rays."

      Asthma and other pulmonary patients must now use an environmentally friendly —and more costly —type of inhaler that contains a propellant called hydroflouroalkane (HFA).

      The FDA and other health organizations say HFA inhalers have a different feel and taste — and patients need to take deep breaths when using them.

      The HFA "emergency" inhalers give patients the same dose of albuterol as CFC inhalers and are a "safe and effective" alternative for the more than 40 million asthma and pulmonary patients nationwide, according to the FDA.

      A Florida pharmacist and a spokesman for The American Lung Association and also told us the HFA inhalers now on the market — ProAir, Proventil, Ventolin, and Xopenex — are just as effective as the CFC inhalers when properly used.

      But the key issue, ey said, is for patients to get their asthma under control

      The scores of patients who contacted us say their asthma was in control until they tried the new HFA inhalers.

      They also told us:

      • The HFA inhalers don't give them quick relief;

      • In some cases, the HFA inhalers made their asthma worse. Some say they're allergic to the ethanol in the HFA inhalers;

      • HFA inhalers are more expensive than CFC inhalers. The price has skyrocketed from about $5 for a CFC inhaler to around $50 for an HFA inhaler. That's because there is no generic alternative for HFA inhalers;

      • Many are not convinced CFC inhalers harm the ozone. They also say they're environmentalists, but believe the government picked the wrong product to ban;

      • Many wonder why people can't choose which type of inhaler to use. They understand some patients don't have problems with the HFA inhalers. But what about those who do? Why can't they use their old CFC inhalers?

      The comments we've heard from asthma and pulmonary patients in the past two days mirror those concerns. Consider:

      • "I may die if I cannot have my CFC inhaler," says Paulette B. of Sacramento, California. "I cannot use HFA albuterol inhalers as I am allergic to the propellants in all of them. I tried two different ones and they made me cough really badly, and my lungs burned awfully. They gave me an awful headache and caused nausea, too;"

      • "I have been using CFC inhalers for years with very effective results in controlling my asthma," says Kori L. of Queen Creek, Arizona. "As soon as the CFC inhaler ban was complete, I was forced to use the new HFA inhaler. Not only did the HFA inhaler not work as well controlling my symptoms, but I went from using 1 CFC inhaler a month (a cost of $10/month) to using at least 2-3 HFA inhalers a month and insurance only covers 1 Rx (prescription) a month (at $20) so I was stuck having to pay for the full cost of the additional inhalers or just suffer through my asthma symptoms;"

      • "I have tried all the new inhalers meant to replace the CFC and had no good results," says Dana of Greenwood Village, Colorado. "My asthma is on the side of severe and next to impossible to keep under control. I take a preventive medication, but also need a fast acting inhaler when exposed to any of my many triggers. These new inhalers are completely ineffective and give side effects unable to conquer. This new ban makes my quality and quantity of life a disgrace. I am unable to work, leave my house, or exert energy to play with my children;"

      • "During an attack, I used the new inhaler and my attack became worse," says Jessi Rose F. Fredericksburg, Virginia. "The lack of function of my inhaler frightens me, and I feel unheard and uncared for (because) I was not given a choice in the system I use. I find the switch to be not just careless, but dangerous. At the very least, I feel that we should be given a choice;"

      • "The CFC inhalers would usually give me relief, even if I was having a bad attack, or at the very least, enable me get to the ER without an ambulance ride," says Mary M. of Edgewater, Florida. "I don't care what the doctors, pharmacists, or the FDA say. The HFA inhalers are not the same and they don't work as well, if at all. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with us not using the inhaler 'correctly'. How could so many people have used CFC inhalers fine, but not know how to use an HFA inhaler to get relief? HFA inhalers are dangerous and will cause many preventable deaths. Maybe some of these people from the FDA who won't budge on this will even get to watch a family member or loved one struggle for their last breath because of a defective and unsafe inhaler that replaced one that worked;"

      • "I just read your article on the new HFA inhalers and reading the comment by the FDA representative about not changing (its) position on these new HFA inhalers is short sighted and a disservice to asthmatic patients," says Kim C. of Mebane, North Carolina. "These new inhalers are inferior, case closed! I was sick for many months after using these products: coughing, burning chest, worsening asthma symptoms and body aches. It was horrible. Peoples' health should have never been subjected to political correctness, and that's what this is all about politics."

      Change was "political"

      A clinical professor at the University of Florida —and the co-author of a 2007 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine about the transition to HFA inhalers —agrees the switch was political.

      "Why was it political?" asks pharmacist Leslie Hendeles. "Some years ago, the United States, along with other countries, signed an agreement to phase out all CFCs. That's political. Secondly, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to include this (ban). That's political."

      He disagrees with political and environmental officials who say CFC inhalers harm the ozone.

      "The science is not there that these (CFC inhalers) were damaging the ozone," he told us. "A majority of the damage (from CFCs) came from refrigerators and air conditioners."

      A medical exemption allowing CFC inhalers to remain on the market was included in the Montreal Protocol when it was signed in 1987. At the time, there weren't viable alternative propellants for CFCs.

      But that exemption was removed when HFA-albuterol inhalers became available. In 2005, the FDA determined CFC inhalers were no longer "essential" and said they must be phased out by December 31, 2009.

      The four HFA-albuterol inhalers now on the market, Hendeles says, are safe and effective alternatives. And he takes issue with those who question the validity of the FDA's studies on these new inhalers.

      "There was a wide range of studies done on these (HFA inhalers)," he told us. "These were double-blind, random, placebo studies. I've been studying asthma studies for 35 years. I've served on the FDA's advisory committee ... you're talking to someone who is knowledgeable about this. The FDA was careful to require studies (on HFA inhalers) to detect any differences and make sure they were equivalent (to CFC inhalers.").

      Hendeles said he reviewed all the HFA inhalers now on the market for his article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

      Good technique needed

      "We analyzed the data. There isn't a hint that any one of those drugs doesn't work as well as CFCs. The difference is everyone in those studies was trained to use the HFA inhalers correctly."

      That's why Hendeles suggests patients work on the "technique" they use with these new inhalers.

      "What I tell our patients is 'let me see how you use (the HFA inhaler) and maybe I can make some suggestions to get an increase of the medicine in your lung.' Studies that have examined how people use inhalers have shown many don't use them correctly."

      He added: "I'm also going to throw out the possibility that the HFA inhaler is less forgiving (to bad technique) than the CFC inhalers. If you didn't have good technique with a CFC inhaler it may be magnified with the HFA inhaler."

      Hendeles said he's had excellent results with patients who've improved their technique. "I've rarely had anyone come back (with complaints) who is using the correct technique. It's uncommon."

      Some patients, he told us, also respond differently to the various HFA inhalers. "We've had a lot of patients say the ProAir (which has ethanol) doesn't work for them and we've switched them to Ventolin, (which doesn't have excipients other than the propellant) and they say they're okay."

      Other patients, he said, have trouble with the HFA inhalers because they don't clean them as often as their CFC devices.

      "Unlike the CFC inhalers, the HFA propellant plugs the opening if patients don't follow the directions," Hendeles said. "What we have found is people are —after using them a few times --maybe not be washing them. That makes them clogs and they don't get a full dose. Or some patients may not prime the (HFA) inhaler when it comes out of the package or if they haven't used in a few weeks.

      "If people say they're having trouble with these inhalers," Hendeles added, "ask them how often they're washing them."

      Hendeles echoed other medical professionals who say the key issue is for asthma and pulmonary patients to get their disease under control. "The guidelines say you shouldn't use your rescue inhaler more than twice a week."

      The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), which told us it's keeping this issue on its radar, concurs."The bottom line is that asthma patients need to make sure they're getting their asthma under control," said Charlotte Collins, the foundation's director of public policy and advocacy. "If they're having trouble with these (HFA) inhalers, they need to get with a specialist to find alternatives."

      One alternative the FDA isn't likely to consider is letting CFC inhalers back on the market.

      "CFC inhalers damage the ozone," spokesman Christopher Kelly told us. "People will have to get used to the new (HFA) inhalers."

      Kelly said his agency researched its decision to phase-out CFC inhalers for several years. He referred us to pages of documentation on the agency's Web site about the ban and the "safe and effective" alternatives for CFC inhalers.

      One FDA posting said: "There are three albuterol HFA inhalers and one levalbuterol HFA inhaler that are alternatives to albuterol CFC inhalers. Each of the HFA inhalers is different. It is important to remember that it is the deep breath that gets the medication into a patient's lungs, not the force of the spray. The spray from an albuterol HFA inhaler may feel softer than the spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler, but this will not affect the amount of drug that a patient breathes into their lungs.

      The posting adds: "The spray from an albuterol CFC inhaler often hits the back of the mouth. The spray from an HFA inhaler is a fine mist that may actually be easier to breathe into the lungs compared to a CFC inhaler. If patients have problems with the albuterol HFA inhaler, they should talk to their healthcare provider as a different product may work better for them."

      Kelly said his agency knows many consumers are upset about the ban on CFC inhalers.

      More than 300 consumers, he said, filed complaints with FDA last year about this action: 295 by phone and 39 by e-mail.

      "The complaints concerned the cost increase and patients getting used to the new formulation," Kelly said. "But I don't think our position is going to change on this."

      He and other proponents of the HFA inhalers also say the costs should come down in the next few years.

      Until that happens, The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (PPA) and drug companies that make HFA inhalers say special programs and money-saving coupons are available to help consumers cover the higher prices.

      Hendeles and others also told us Wal-Mart now sells a smaller Ventolin inhaler for $9.99.

      Congressional action

      But many asthma patients don't like those options. They want their trusty —and more affordable —affordable CFC inhalers.

      The National Campaign to Save CFC Asthma Inhalers is trying to help those patients get what it argues is much-needed medication.

      The California-based organization encourages asthma and pulmonary patients to join its grassroots campaign to convince Congress to amend the Clean Air Act.

      "Congressional action is the answer," says the organization's founder, Arthur Abramson. But first, Abramson wants President Barack Obama to issue an emergency order to allow CFC inhalers in the country.

      "We're the lead organization on this. If we are silent about this then there is no hope for people. We are the last hope for asthma and pulmonary patients. And we will fight this state by state."

      "Not realistic"

      Hendeles, however, doesn't consider either of those viable options.

      "Neither is realistic," he told us. "No one is making CFC inhalers. And an emergency order would not bring about change. There's a tremendous shortage of Freon propellant.

      "The reality is there isn't enough CFC to supply the companies (making the inhalers)."

      Not true, says Abramson, who said he has researched this issue for two years. "That's nonsense to say that you can't get CFCs anymore. It's absolutely untrue."

      Abramson said he's been in contact with a lab in New York that could make CFC — MDI inhalers. He also told us that Honeywell has publicly said it would "be happy to make" CFC inhalers again.

      A Honeywell spokesman said on Friday that she would research the issue and have a response later this week.

      We've also contacted various Congressional leaders about patients' concerns regarding the ban, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak, who serves on the Committee for Energy and Commerce that has oversight over the FDA.

      We're waiting for comments from these elected officials.

      EPA is "sympathetic"

      A spokeswoman for the EPA told us her agency is sympathetic to asthma patients' concerns. "But it would be more appropriate for the FDA to comment," said Catherine C. Milbourn, the agency's senior press officer. "I am reluctant to step on another agency's turf. It sounds like they (FDA) have extensive information on their Web site."

      She added: "We regulate the propellant (CFC) itself. And under the Montreal Protocol, CFCs were phased out. The only thing we would have is the responsibility for phasing out the CFCs."

      Meanwhile, Abramson said he will continue his grassroots campaign to bring back CFC inhalers and educate consumers about what he calls the "false and misleading" information the FDA and others have made about this ban and HFA inhalers.

      That false information, he claims, includes:

      • CFC inhalers harm the ozone. There's no evidence to support this claim, Abramson says. "The trivial amount of CFC emissions from MDIs (metered-dose albuterol inhalers) does not threaten the ozone layer," Abramson states in his group's petition to save CFC inhalers. "The amount of CFCs required for the world's pulmonary patients peaked at less than 10,000 tons (including U.S. use) per year in 1997 (less than 1% of the peak global 1987 CFC emissions for all industrial uses). U.S. CFC MDI use peaked at 2,645 tons/year in 1999. These amounts are trivial and harmless;"

      • HFA inhalers are safe. "There's no way HFA inhalers are safe or effective for all patients who were doing well with CFC MDIs," Abramson told us. "They have ethanol, corn, leachables, HFA-134a Propellant, which was untested in asthma and other pulmonary patients, and many and other potentially dangerous impurities in them."

      • HFA inhalers were thoroughly tested before they went on the market: The tests done of the HFA inhalers were flawed, Abramson says. "The group was too small, the duration was too short, and the population in the clinical tests was a carefully groomed group. These are not real world tests."

      The organization's petition reiterates those concerns.

      "The FDA's false and misleading PR campaign is primarily based on twelve week drug company bought-and-paid-for 'clinical trials' of a couple of hundred mild/moderate asthmatics each — no severely ill patients are included, and black patients (who often have severe asthma), older patients (who often have complex medical problems), and COPD, cystic fibrosis and other important patient populations are frequently under-represented/not represented in these virtually worthless 'clinical trails,' which are nothing more than drug company advertising/PR sales pieces."

      Abramson says he initially launched the campaign because he opposed the ban on CFC inhalers. "I've had asthma since birth —it's not severe —but the new HFA inhalers are not nearly as effective for me as my CFC inhaler."

      The scores of asthma patients who've contacted us hope Abramson's campaign is successful.

      Many, like April T. of Murrieta, California, say this is a mater of life and death.

      "Please, please, please. I am begging whoever can make this change happen to allow people like me who cannot take the new (HFA) medications have an alternative and bring back the life saving CFC inhalers."

      Read consumers' comments about the new inhalers.

      Asthma Patients Get Scant Response to Problems with New Inhalers...

      More Pet Foods Added to Salmonella Recall

      Dog treats pulled from shelves on fears of contamination

      Add more pet treats to what seems like a never-ending list of products recalled in the wake of this year's salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 600 people nationwide and may be linked to the deaths of nine others.

      The company at the heart of this outbreak — the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) — recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. That action came within days after the company's president, Stewart Parnell, refused to answer questions about the salmonella outbreak from the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee.

      The bankruptcy action also came on the heels of state and federal inspections of the company's facilities in Georgia and Texas, which revealed PCA shipped products it knew had tested positive for salmonella.

      The reports also revealed such unsanitary conditions at PCA's facilities as dead rodents, roaches, mold, and bird feathers and rodent excrement in a crawl space above the production area at one of the company's plants.

      The ongoing recalls are fueled in part by Texas authorities' recent decision to immediately pull all products made at PCA's Plainview, Texas, plant since March 2005.

      The latest products recalled in this outbreak are American Health Kennels baked dog treats. The action specifically covers the following items:

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Cookie Bars: Creamy Peanut Butter UPC 725999522004; PB & Carob Chips UPC 725999523001; Lucious Carob UPC 725999521007; 4pack Cookiebar Assortment UPC 725999538005; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Peanut Butter Crunch 12oz UPC 725999001103; 16oz UPC 725999161104; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc. Bark Bars Peanut Butter: 1.5oz Jumbo UPC 725999000168; 2.25 Pillow Pack UPC 725999333105; 2.5lb canister UPC 725999005064; 5lb bulk UPC 725999001257; 6oz Smiles UPC 725999530009; Giggles UPC 725999530009;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Christmas Stocking 6oz UPC 725999000175; Christmas Card Mailer UPC 725999513003; Birthday Mailer UPC 725999528006; "With Love" Hearts UPC 725999512944; Holiday Smiles UPC 725999222300;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., 100 Calorie 2oz Pillow Pack UPC 725999539101; 100 Calorie 14oz dispenser UPC 725999539200; Gravity Trial 2oz UPC 725999400166; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Minis UPC 72599953300; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Animal Snackers 3oz UPC 725999512098; 12oz UPC 725999512098; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Milk & Cookies UPC 725999333808; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Dog Ate My Homework Jumbo UPC 725999531006; 2oz Pillow Pack UPC 725999535004; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Naughty or Nice UPC 725999530092; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Carob & Peanut Butter, 2.5lb canister UPC 725999005071; 2.25oz Pillow Pack UPC 725999333402; 5lb bulk UPC 725999003251; Best Before: 11/09;

      • American Health Kennels, Inc., Bark Bars Brownie Delight 12oz UPC 725999003107; 5lb bulk UPC 725999003251; Best Before: 11/09

      American Kennel said it has not received any reports of illnesses linked to these products. "We are effecting this recall in the interest of public safety even though we know our product is safe," the company said in a written statement.

      In recent months, more than 200 companies nationwide have pulled some 2,100 products off store shelves because they contain potentially tainted peanut butter or paste made by PCA. The recalled products include such items as crackers, cookies, cereal, energy bars, ice cream, and pet treats.

      None of the national brands of peanut butter — including Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan — are included in any recalls. The makers of those products continue to remind consumers their peanut butter is safe to eat.

      Hundreds of food manufacturers, however, used PCA peanut butter and paste as ingredients in their products. Many continue to pull products off store shelves almost daily, making this one of the country's largest food-related recalls.

      PCA remains the focus of a criminal investigation for allegedly shipping products it knew had tested positive for salmonella, including the strain linked to the current outbreak — Salmonella Typhimurium. The company also faces more than a dozen civil lawsuits.

      Damaging evidence that surfaced in the investigation includes e-mails that indicate PCA's president Stewart Parnell ordered products he knew were tainted with salmonella to be shipped anyway.

      Some of those potentially-tainted products made their way to poor school children and victims of recent disasters.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that salmonella can be transferred from pets to humans. They advise pet owners to thoroughly wash their hands before and after feeding treats to pets.

      FDA officials say symptoms of salmonella poisoning in pets includes lethargy, diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets may also have decreased appetite, fever and abdominal pain.

      Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In rare cases, it can cause more severe illnesses, including arterial infections (i.e., infected aneurysms), endocarditis, and arthritis.

      Health officials say consumers should discard any products recalled in this salmonella outbreak.

      The FDA now has a database that consumers can search to see if their favorite products are involved in any recalls.

      More Pet Foods Added to Salmonella Recall...

      Economists See Recession Continuing Through First Half of 2009

      Bad data on jobs, markets makes business roundtable pessimistic

      Looks like the recession is going to be with us for a while longer.

      A panel of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) is expecting the recession to continue through the middle of this year, with large declines in real GDP during each of this year's first two quarters. Cumulatively, the cyclical downturn will rival that of 1973-75.

      In the current downturn real GDP is predicted to decline 2.8 percent, slightly less than the 3.1 percent during the early 1970's. This represents a significant markdown of the November forecast, when 60 percent of survey participants expected a decline of 1.5 percent, or less.

      The steady drumbeat of weak economic and financial market data has made business economists see the decidedly more pessimistic on the economic outlook for the next several quarters.

      Credit conditions remain tight and declines in equity markets and home values, combined with significant job losses, are causing consumers to rein in discretionary spending. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise to 9.0 percent by year-end and inflation is expected to moderate, as economic slack builds and as oil prices are forecast to remain relatively depressed.

      The good news is that economic activity is expected to turn up in the second half of the year and 2010 is expected to see modestly above-trend growth of 3.1 percent.

      Other highlights of the NABE Survey:

      • The auto industry is projected to remain under severe pressure. Auto sales forecasts have been cut to 10.9 million units this year from an already weak 12.5 million estimate in November's survey. Sales in 2010 are forecast to rise to just 13.1 million.

      • Housing starts for 2009 were marked down, with 630 thousand units expected to break ground, compared with 870,000 units projected in the November survey. Home prices, as measured by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, are expected to decline 5.3 percent in 2009, following a 6.0 percent drop in 2008, but rise 2 percent in 2010. The good news is that NABE panelists see housing demand stabilizing fairly soon. When asked to identify the bottom in home sales, the panel was optimistic that home sales should trough by mid-2009, as should housing starts, with the latter rising to 900 thousand units in 2010.

      • Despite falling exports, foreign trade is still expected to provide a boost to an otherwise weak economy this year. The overall trade gap on a balance of payments basis is now slated to be just $510 billion in 2009 and $530 billion in 2010, well below the $677-billion deficit seen in 2008. The trade-weighted dollar is expected to remain relatively strong this year before losing some of its gains in 2010.

      The efficiency of the $787 billion fiscal stimulus package signed into law is a hotly debated topic. Although there is general agreement among NABE panelists that the fiscal stimulus will aid GDP growth in 2009, the growth impact of such actions called forth somewhat guarded responses.

      For 2009, 43 percent of the panelists expect that the fiscal impact on real GDP growth will be 0.5 percent or less, but 38 percent project that the government's programs could boost growth by 0.6 percent to 1.0 percent. The impact is expected to last into 2010, yet the panelists are evenly divided on whether real GDP growth will receive a 0.5 percent, 1.0 percent or 1.5 percent boost from the fiscal package.

      If the growth dynamics play out as expected by NABE panelists, then the economy should step up to exceed its potential growth rate by 2010. When quizzed separately about estimates of potential GDP growth for the U.S. economy, panelists gave varied responses; 30 percent of panelists pegged potential GDP growth in the 2.25 percent to 2.50 percent range, with 49 percent responding higher than the range and 17 percent lower. The overall distribution of responses suggests a potential GDP growth rate of about 2.5 percent.

      The median expectation is that the US economy will grow at a below-trend rate until the first quarter of 2010.

      Economists See Recession Continuing Through First Half of 2009...

      Chinese Drywall a Threat to Homeowners?

      Drywall emits harmful sulfuric odors, homeowner lawsuits charge

      A class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of homeowners experiencing problems with drywall manufactured in China, just as the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) ramps up an investigation.

      The drywall, installed in homes in Florida, may be emitting sulfuric odors, potentially exposing homeowners to respiratory health problems. The emissions can also corrode air conditioning coils and wiring, posing a potential risk of electrical fire.

      Although a number of drywall manufacturers may be implicated, the most commonly-cited is Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., Ltd. (KPT), a China-based producer. The company regularly prints its name on the back of its drywall, making it the most easily identifiable potential culprit.

      Florida homeowners have submitted almost 100 complaints to the Florida Department of Health about problems relating to their drywall, prompting U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) to petition the CPSC and Environmental Protection Agency to investigate.

      In a statement, Nelson called for the agencies to determine the number of homeowners potentially affected by the problem, and to decide whether a recall needs to be initiated. Nelson also directed the CPSC to promulgate drywall safety standards to avoid a repeat of the issue in the future. Nelson said that he does not believe that any such standards currently exist. The CPSC said it has initiated an investigation.

      Most of the complaints have come from homeowners in Southwest Florida, although the scope of affected homes remains to be seen. Miami-based Lennar Homes, the nations second-largest homebuilder by volume, has confirmed that KPT drywall was installed in some of its homes, and says it is taking steps to address the issue.

      Homeowners have complained of headaches, dry eyes, and bloody noses, among other allergy-like symptoms. The Florida Department of Health says that preliminary tests show no immediate health threat, but is reportedly conducting further tests to determine the extent of health risks.

      The problem was originally blamed on a shortage of American-manufactured drywall, ostensibly due to the housing boom and extensive construction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Recently, however, suspicions have arisen that the problem dates back further. Some Florida experts have suggested that the defective drywall was installed as early as 2004.

      Additionally, Florida attorney Gary Rosen recently told the South Florida Business Journal that a number of complaints have been quietly settled over the past three years, suggesting that the problem is more widespread than originally thought. The problem is common enough that Florida real estate agents have begun adding disclosures to forms, informing buyers that they have the right to seek inspection to determine whether the homes drywall poses health hazards.

      Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of affected homeowners, and more may be coming. The law firm of Parker, Waichman, and Alonso LLP filed suit on behalf of lead Plaintiffs Shane and Nicole Allen, representing a putative class consisting of all Florida homeowners whose houses were built using KPT-supplied drywall.

      In addition to KPT, the suit names as defendants the Knauf Group, KPTs parent company; Banner Supply, a material supply company based in Miami; and Rothchilt International Ltd., an exporter located in China.

      The suit alleges that the drywall emits one of several sulfur compounds including sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, and estimates that 10 million square feet of defective drywall was used in Florida homes. The suit accuses KPT of using fly ash, a waste material from Chinese power plants, in manufacturing the drywall. Morgan & Morgan, a personal injury firm based in Orlando, is also involved in the action.

      More litigation is likely to follow. Jordan Chaikin, an attorney with Parker Waichman, told a Florida newspaper that, [a]s this case moves forward, more builders will be identified. That I'm sure of. In a preemptive strike, Lennar Homes has already filed suit against KPT, Banner Supply, and Taishan Gypsum, another China-based drywall manufacturer. In its complaint, the builder insists that, Lennar stands alongside its homeowners as a victim.

      The defective drywall is one in a line of problematic Chinese imports, from childrens toys to dog food to car tires. Nelson, the Senator from Florida, was involved in the promulgation of more stringent regulations on China-manufactured toys.

      Anyone who thinks their home may contain defective drywall can learn more about the lawsuit online.

      The drywall, may be emitting sulfuric odors, potentially exposing homeowners to respiratory health problems. The emissions can also corrode air conditionin...