Current Events in February 2014

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    Groupon and President Hamilton troll America for President's Day

    And Groupon's CEO sold off a lot of his shares in the company

    The Groupon marketing guy who decided to celebrate President's Day by offering a $10 off deal in honor of "President Alexander Hamilton" (whose picture graces the American ten-dollar bill) is either a complete ignoramus or a slyly brilliant genius — we can't pin it down more precisely than that.

    Did you read that last sentence and say “Wait a minute — Hamilton was never the president!”? That's how many would-be Groupon customers reacted when they read the Groupon release offering ten bucks off local deals costing more than $40, and saying “The $10 bill, as everyone knows, features President Alexander Hamilton -- undeniably one of our greatest presidents and most widely recognized for establishing the country's financial system.”

    Twitterer and political journalist Chris Moody concluded “Groupon is obviously trolling here,” especially since “My friend wrote to Groupon to say that Alexander Hamilton was never president. Their spokesperson responded 'We respect everyone's beliefs. You're certainly entitled to your opinion'.”

    If you subscribe to the Groupon/genius/trolling theory, then this is a presumably brilliant marketing move based on the old cliché “All publicity is good publicity.” You can even say we fell for it ourselves, since we wrote this article here.

    On the other hand, we don't know of any market-research surveys suggesting that publicity associating yourself with dumbassery or other negative things actually increases your bottom line — if that were the case, then the 1970s-era “Ayds” weight-loss candy wouldn't have gone out of business in the 1980s after various media reports ensured that all readers-of-news would associate “weight loss” and “AIDS.”

    In other Groupon news, stock-market observers report that last week, on Feb. 13, Groupon's CEO sold 454,166 of his shares of Groupon stock. If our rudimentary knowledge of stock-market investing is correct, “selling stock” is not something millionaires do if they think the stock will be more valuable in the future than it is now.

    Of course, we're just ordinary everyday working folks, not brilliant financial geniuses like former U.S. President Alexander Hamilton who, as Groupon historians will tell you, was “undeniably” the most important U.S. leader since President Morgan Freeman saved the Earth from that giant asteroid.

    The guy responsible is either a complete ignoramus or a slyly brilliant genius...

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      12 top family car choices for 2014

      Kelley Blue Book places more sedans than minivans on the list

      Buying a family car doesn't necessarily mean buying a minivan. Not in 2014, when there are varied options for an individual family's needs.

      There are sedans, crossovers and SUVs to consider as well. Kelley Blue Book (KBB) recently consulted families themselves to help compile a list of the best family vehicles from among the 2014 models.

      "More than just a list, Best Family Cars 2014 is an all-new section of KBB.com that outlines in detail how well America's top family vehicles withstand their daily routines,” said Jack R. Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book's website, KBB.com. “The vehicles making the cut are winners in the areas of safety, comfort, driving performance, room for child seats, cargo space, rear-seat entertainment, and other family-friendly features."

      Honda placed four models in the top 12; Nissan had three, Chevrolet had two and Ford, Subaru and Toyota had one each.

      Honda

      The Honda Accord is a mid-sized sedan that might not be top-of-mind when you think of a family car. Yet the families in the KBB survey say it's a popular choice. It comes standard with a four-cylinder engine but a V-6 is available as an option. The car wins praise for its drivetrain and gas mileage, delivering an estimated 27/36 mpg city/highway.

      The Honda CR-V is a compact SUV that wins praise for its roomy interior and its large number of standard features that are options on many other models – a back-up camera, for example. Honda says the CR-V is one of its more popular models and the car recently was named US News' Best Compact SUV for the Money. Reviewers praise its comfortable ride in both standard front-wheel drive and optional all-wheel-drive packages.

      The Honda Odyssey appears to have been designed with families in mind. The minivan's top trim level features a built in vacuum, to clean up after the smaller passengers. Otherwise, the Odyssey has received only minor exterior and interior updates from the popular 2013 model. Though it tends to be one of the more pricey minivans on the market it offers impressive fuel economy.

      The Honda Pilot is a family-friendly SUV, carrying up to eight people while offering wallet-pleasing fuel economy. KBB editors says the pilot is “a near-ideal choice for reliable and efficient transportation for families and their gear.”

      Nissan

      The Nissan Altima is another sedan winning high praise as a family car. The 2014 model has been updated in ways that may appeal especially to younger families. A new Apps-based music and navigation system is the most tangible result of the redesign, along with premium materials used throughout the cabin. It's easy on the budget as well, with a lower entry point than most of its competitors.

      The Nissan Pathfinder turned heads with its updated 2013 model. The 2014 model continues the appeal. As a softened crossover SUV, KBB finds the 7-passenger Pathfinder “one of the most competent models” in its highly competitive class.

      If you like the Nissan Sentra but prefer it in a more family-friendly compact SUV package, the Nissan Rogue may deserve a look. The Rogue is powered by a fuel-stingy 4-cylinder engine, offers an available all-wheel-drive (AWD) system and starts under $24,000.

      Chevrolet

      The Chevrolet Impala has a long history as a family car, reaching back to a time when all sedans were “full-sized.” The 2014 Impala gets back into the family car category, not just by offering a roomy interior but budget-friendly fuel economy as well, thanks to the mild-hybrid Eco model.

      The Chevy Traverse belongs in the crossover sport-utility class that many families find appealing. Since its 2009 debut, the Traverse has provided an alternative to both traditional SUVs and the minivan. Reviewers give the Traverse high marks for its eight-passenger capacity and better fuel economy than a traditional SUV.

      Ford

      The exterior design of the Ford Flex recalls an earlier automotive era. It looks like a boxy stationwagon from the 1970s. But it's a stylish update, winning high marks for both form and function. It offers seating for six or seven, a range of trim levels and prices, available all-wheel drive, and a turbocharged V6 EcoBoost engine.

      Subaru

      The Subaru Forrester has been a popular vehicle with young families for over a decade. In 2014 it gets a major redesign. All models come with all-wheel-drive standard and greater passenger/cargo space.

      Toyota

      The Toyota Sienna is only the second minivan on the list of 12 family vehicles, suggesting it meets a pretty high standard. According to KBB editors, it “rises above the minivan mob” by offering a nearly unbeatable combination of models, options, strong resale value and styling. It's V-6 engine offers more power than its rivals but is still a fuel efficient ride.

      While there were only two minivans making the list there are three sedans. Nerad says that was a surprise, but perhaps shouldn't have been.

      "Once upon a time before minivans and SUVs, sedans were the primary family car of choice, and this year's list proves the modern sedan still makes a fine family car with the 2014 Honda Accord, Chevrolet Impala and Nissan Altima all landing a spot among the best," he said.

      Buying a family car doesn't necessarily mean buying a minivan. Not in 2014, when there are varied options for an individual family's needs.There are seda...

      The 2014 tax filing season is off and running

      The filing of returns is exceeding the 2013 pace

      Taxpayers aren't wasting any time filing their 2013 federal income tax returns, outpacing filings for the same time last year.

      The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says that, as of Feb. 7, it's received 27.3 million returns -- up 2.5% from the same time last year. Electronically filed returns account for almost 96% of those filed so far this year.

      Taxpayers, either through tax preparers or from their home computers, have e-filed more than 26 million returns -- up almost 4% from the same time a year ago. As of Feb. 7, taxpayers have filed more than 13 million returns from home computers – a year-over-year increase of 14.7%.

      Rising refunds

      Refunds are up for 2014, with almost 19.5 million issued this year -- an increase of more than 18% over last year. The average refund as of Feb. 7 is $3,317, up 4.% from 2013. (Refund averages generally have higher dollar values early in the filing season than later in the year.)

      Most refunds are directly deposited into taxpayer accounts. Just over 87% all refunds issued were directly deposited as of Feb. 7.

      2014 FILING SEASON STATISTICS

      Cumulative statistics comparing 2/8/13 and 2/7/14

      Individual Income Tax Returns:

      2013

      2014

      % Change

      Total Receipts

      26,589,000

      27,249,000

      2.5

      Total Processed

      18,811,000

      26,945,000

      43.2

      E-filing Receipts:

      TOTAL          

      25,121,000

      26,081,000

      3.8

      Tax Professionals

      13,456,000

      12,699,000

      -5.6

      Self-prepared

      11,665,000

      13,382,000

      14.7

      Web Usage:

      Visits to IRS.gov

      90,706,865

      89,683,640

      -1.1

      Total Refunds:

      Number

      16,424,000

      19,459,000

      18.5

      Amount

      $52.059 billion

      $64.546 billion

      24

      Average refund

      $3,170

      $3,317

      4.6

      Direct Deposit Refunds:

      Number

      15,457,000

      16,976,000

      9.8

      Amount

      $50.214 billion

      $55.815 billion

      11.2

      Average refund

      $3,249

      $3,288

      1.2

      Taxpayers aren't wasting any time filing their 2013 federal income tax returns, outpacing filings for the same time last year. The Internal Revenue Servi...

      What you don't know about heart disease could kill you

      Survey finds most of us are clueless about heart disease

      If you ask someone which they fear more, cancer or heart disease, chances are they'll express a greater fear of cancer. But when it comes to U.S. deaths, slightly more people die each year of heart disease than cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

      Maybe it's because we just take our hearts for granted, we don't seem to give them much thought. The Cleveland Clinic recently commissioned a survey and found that 74% of Americans expressed no fear of dying of heart-related illness.

      Doctors at the clinic say the study reveals other reasons why most people don't give heart disease a second thought. It turns out a lot of the things we think we know about our hearts and the way they function is simply wrong.

      Unaware of symptoms

      For example, 70% of Americans are unaware of all the symptoms of heart disease, even though two out of three of those surveyed have or know someone who has heart disease. More distressing to the doctors, only 30% correctly identified unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances and jaw pain as all being signs of heart disease – just a few of the symptoms that can occur.

      “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in this country, so it’s disappointing to see that so many Americans are unaware of the severity of not taking action to prevent heart disease, or how exactly to do so,” said Steven Nissen, M.D., Chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “This is a disease that can largely be prevented and managed, but you have to be educated about how to do so and then incorporate prevention into your lifestyle.”

      Quiz

      Here's a quiz to see what you know – and don't know – about your heart:

      1. True or False? Adding fish oil to your diet can prevent heart disease. False. Though fish oil has a number of health benefits, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic say preventing heart attacks isn't one of them.
      2. True or False? Getting the right amount of daily vitamins reduces your risk of a heart attack? False again. Studies have shown that vitamins have almost no effect on heart health, and some can be detrimental. If you got this one wrong, don't feel bad – 61% of the people in the survey did as well.
      3. Which is a bigger source of sodium in the diet, cheese or bread? The answer is bread. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed got that one wrong.
      4. True or False? Some people are genetically predisposed to develop heart disease. False. Even though 59% of those in the survey believe a heart disease gene could be the key to determining their predisposition to the condition, no such gene has been identified. Family history is an important risk factor but not for genetic reasons.

      Important symptoms

      If you are at risk of heart disease, it's important to know the symptoms of a heart attack. Boston area cardiologist Dr. Larry Weinrauch says people should be sensitive to unusual pain and discomfort.

      Pain caused by an inadequate supply of oxygen to the heart can occur in many different forms but its location is usually consistent. Most of the time patients describe a tightness, heaviness or constriction in the mid-chest or upper abdomen that appears to also be present in one or the other shoulder. They may also feel discomfort in the upper biceps, elbow and wrist.

      The reason for the pain is the heart is not getting enough oxygen to the parts of the body that need it. The central nervous system responds by signaling discomfort. Doctors say people at risk need to be sensitive to that discomfort and seek medical attention.

      “There is no single way to prevent heart disease, given that every person is different,” Nissen said. “Yet there are five things everyone should learn when it comes to their heart health because they can make an enormous difference and greatly improve your risk: eat right, exercise regularly, know your cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index numbers, do not use tobacco, and know your family history. Taking these steps can help lead to a healthier heart and a longer, more vibrant life.”

      If you ask someone which they fear more, cancer or heart disease, chances are they'll express a greater fear of cancer. But when it comes to U.S. deaths, s...

      Tesla sales are red hot but so are some of its cars

      The latest Tesla fire occurred in a Toronto garage, the cause so far unknown

      Tesla is sort of the Justin Bieber of cars -- popular, youthful and nice-looking but something of a troublemaker. Or perhaps we should say "disruptor" as that's the term Silicon Valley types prefer for an innovative product that shakes up existing business models.

      The Tesla is wowing its fans at the same time it's getting under the skin of regulators, worrying the sober-minded and annoying the hell out of competitors.

      First, the bad news. Another Tesla S caught fire, this time while parked in a garage in Toronto. Reports say the car wasn't plugged in, although it had just returned from a trip. Tesla says it doesn't yet know what started the fire but says it wasn't the battery or any of the other usual suspects.

      "The Model S continues to have the best safety track record of any vehicle in the world," Tesla said in a statement, continuing to model its corporate communications on the Beatles' claim of being "more popular than Jesus." 

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating a couple of earlier fires, a process that can drag on indefinitely. The Toronto fire, like an earlier one in Mexico, is out of NHTSA's jurisdiction.

      More popular than ...

      While Tesla may not yet be more popular than Jesus, its sales records are, pardon the term, blazing lately, at least in California, the nation's largest auto market and its longtime automotive trend setter.

      Tesla was a solid third among luxury car brands in California in 2013, trailing only Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Electric cars sell better in California than anywhere else in the country, partly because of the state's tough clean air laws but also because of a population that attaches a lot of status to anything that's seen as green. Hybrid sales accounted for nearly ten percent of new car sales in California last year, compared to less than four percent nationwide.

      In the non-luxury segment, another electrified car -- Toyota's Prius model line -- was the best selling marque in the state last year. 

      Buckeye rebellion

      But don't try to buy a Tesla in Ohio. Auto dealers there are getting out the lanterns and pitchforks in their drive to block Tesla's factory store model, pushing legislation that would explicitly block factory-owned stores.

      Tesla recently got licenses for stores in Cincinnati and Columbus, sending dealers' mental tachometers into red-line territory. 

      Tesla currently has a thin network of factory stores, where consumers can go to kick the tires and then order a car if they want, but there is no middleman involved. It's like going to an Apple store and buying a MacBook instead of going to Best Buy and buying an Asus laptop. 

      Or, like a MacBook, you can just order a Tesla online. Who needs a dealer? 

      This middleman rub-out is known as disintermediation and is the model most high-tech businesses pursue. Think Amazon, not Barnes & Noble. Disruption, remember?

      So far, Tesla has been working state by state to get its nose under the tent, with mixed success. It's a long slog any way you look at it. Nearly every state has a dealer franchise law that needs to be modified or overturned if Tesla stores are to become ubiquitous.

      Tesla CEO Elon Musk, not a notably patient fellow, has shown signs of discomfort with the slow progress of the struggle and has said he may seek federal legislation jettisoning those pesky state laws. Or maybe a Supreme Court ruling, if only the courts would work a little more quickly.

      That's the one drawback to disruption. The disruptees tend to drag their feet.

      Teslas are shown in New York after a recent cross-country road rally. (Photo credit: Tesla)Tesla is sort of the Justin Bieber of cars -- popular, youth...

      Lululemon takes a stand against secondhand sales and even higher prices

      Because "Lululemon" and "dislike of elevated prices" go together like orange juice and toothpaste

      If you're a fan of Lululemon workout clothes, be warned: the company does not want you selling your clothes secondhand on eBay, and if they catch you doing it, they might ban you from making further online purchases from Lululemon.commeaning that henceforth, if you want to buy workout gear, your only choices will be to "visit a Lululemon store in person."

      Or you could just patronize any of the other thousand or so workout-clothes companies in existence and pay up to 95 percent less than what Lululemon charges.

      When BusinessInsider reporter Amy Lutz wrote about the phenomenon, she noted: “The policy is frustrating to customers because of Lululemon's stringent return policy, which only allows returns of unworn merchandise within 14 days of purchase, even if the item was a gift.”

      A frequent Lululemonade drinker named Kristin told Lutz that she was banned from Lululemon's online store after she sold a tank top on eBay; Kristin and her husband both have closets “bursting with” Lululemon gear and love every bit of it, she gushed, but the tank top simply did not fit.

      "They said we are welcome to shop in their stores, and in that case, I should have donated the item," Kristin told Lutz. "But part of the appeal of purchasing Lululemon products is that it does hold resale value."

      As for Lululemon, its FAQ page now says “We do not support the re-sale of new product, especially if it is at an elevated price point.” Which surely surprises nobody, for if anyone's going to take a stand against the practice of selling ordinary clothes at absurdly elevated price points, who better than a company that charges 68 bucks for a single standard-size B-to-C-cup sports bra?

      If you're a fan of Lululemon workout clothes, be warned: the company does not want you selling your clothes secondhand...

      Stay away from chicken tartare; salmonella's still a thing

      Proper cooking protects you from salmonella contamination

      In an opinion piece for Food Safety News, Dr. Mel Kramer mentions a modest proposal for new USDA food-labeling guidelines: require all chicken to carry the warning “Caution. Improper cooking of this product may be hazardous to your health.”

      The potential dangerousness of undercooked chicken is pretty well-known (in the old cartoon sitcom King of the Hill, there was a one-off joke about how very ill the Hank Hill character became, that time his not-too-intelligent wife tried making “chicken tartare”), yet this knowledge does not prevent periodic salmonella outbreaks.

      For example: in October 2013, Costco had to recall a large quantity of rotisserie chicken products sold in southern California, due to salmonella contamination.

      Chicken containing salmonella is still safe to eat, provided it is cooked in its entirety to a sustained temperature of 165 degrees (which is fatal to pathogens like salmonella). Presumably the rotisserie chickens had some slightly cooler internal pockets offering shelter to salmonella germs, though of course, even undercooked chicken wouldn't be a problem if there were no salmonella present in the first place.

      Unfortunately, according to Kramer, up to 50 percent of all federally inspected poultry tests positive for salmonella; given current technological limits, completely eradicating salmonella from the pre-cooked chicken supply would not be possible without irradiating all of it, currently a highly controversial notion.

      What to do

      Unless and until this happens, however, you can protect yourself by following basic food-handling and preparation guidelines:

      • Keep all chicken refrigerated or frozen.
      • Thaw frozen chicken in the refrigerator or microwave.
      • Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods, to avoid cross-contamination.
      • Wash working surfaces (including cutting boards), utensils, and hands after touching raw meat or poultry.
      • Cook thoroughly to achieve an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
      • Keep hot foods hot, and refrigerator or discard all leftovers immediately.

      In an opinion piece for Food Safety News, Dr. Mel Kramer mentions a modest proposal for new USDA food-labeling guidelines: require all chicken to carry the...

      Fake funeral notices: the latest despicable online scam

      Don't click on that bereavement notice

      By now it's safe to say: there is no low to which Internet scammers won't sink. The latest proof of this theory is the latest Internet scam: hackers seeking to put malware on people's computers do so by sending out fake funeral notices to grieving friends and families.

      The US government's online-scam information website, OnguardOnline.gov, warned readers of this particularly loathsome scheme on Feb. 12: “Fake funeral notice can be deadly—for your computer.”

      The scam is simple: would-be victims get what appears to be a legitimate bereavement notice from a funeral home. When you click on the offered link, presumably to get information about the time and place of a given memorial service, you are instead routed to a foreign domain that installs all sorts of nasty malware onto your computer.

      Unfortunately, online safety requires a level of vigilance that would be considered “unhealthy paranoia” in most offline contexts. For example: in real life, if a close friend or relative walks up to you and says “I'm in a bit of trouble; can you lend me a few bucks to tide me over?” it's unreasonable to think “This isn't really my close friend or relative; this is an impostor and master of disguise seeking to cheat me out of my money!”

      But online, when a close friend or relative sends you an email asking for money, there's a very good chance it's actually a total stranger who hacked into somebody's email account and is now trying to scam everybody in the email address book. (That particular scam even has its own name – the “Grandma scam” – which in turn is merely a subset of what OnguardOnline dubs “impostor scams.”)

      If you are grieving the recent loss of a loved one, protecting yourself from thieving scammers is the last thing on your mind. Unfortunately, the scammers are counting on that.

      By now it's safe to say: there is no low to which Internet scammers won't sink. ...

      Facebook "sponsored stories" settlement under attack

      Protections afforded children are "hollow" and "meaningless," critics argue

      Last August, Facebook ponied up $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that challenged the unwitting use of consumers' names and photos in advertising and "sponsored stories."

      The settlement amounted to about $15 each for members of the class and a few dollars to lawyers and non-profit groups, but a growing chorus of groups representing consumers, children, parents and privacy advocates are challenging the settlement, saying it doesn't go far enough to protect Facebook's 1.2 billion users. 

      One group that was to receive $290,000 announced it was rejecting the money because the protections under the settlement were "hollow" and "meaningless."

      In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, several parents, on behalf of their teenaged children, called on the court to vacate the settlement, which permits Facebook to use kids’ pictures in ads without the consent of their parents, a practice that is illegal in seven states.

      “This settlement authorizes Facebook to continue doing what California and six other states specifically prohibit by law: use children’s images for advertising without their parents’ consent,” said Scott Michelman, an attorney with Public Citizen, which is representing the parents in challenging the settlement. The other states are Florida, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin.

      Teens are unprepared

      Margaret Becker of Brooklyn, N.Y., is one of the parents Public Citizen represents. She explained, “I’m fighting this settlement because Facebook shouldn’t be permitted to use my teenage daughter’s image for profit without my consent. The Internet compromises children's privacy in many ways that we parents must grapple with. But this settlement lets Facebook make my daughter a shill and leaves me powerless to stop it.”

      “Teens are unprepared to address the consequences of Facebook’s practice of creating ads with profile information but without their knowledge," said Hudson Kingston, legal director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which is filing an amicus brief supporting the challenge to the settlement. "If this settlement stands, teens face a serious loss of their privacy and a damaged reputation continuing into adulthood. Research proves teens are not ready for this kind of exposure, and parents’ consent for commercial appropriation is a necessary protection.”

      Money rejected

      Meanwhile, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) announced that it was rejecting $290,000 it was to receive under the settlement.

      “While we always understood the ... agreement as a compromise, we came to understand that it’s worse than no settlement,” said CCFC Director Susan Linn, “Its purported protections are largely illusory, and it will undermine future efforts to protect minors on Facebook. We could do a lot of good with $290,000, but we cannot benefit from a settlement that we now realize conflicts with our mission to protect children from harmful marketing.”

      The case began with a lawsuit filed in 2011 by some Facebook users over the use of their images in ads without their consent and the use of their children’s images without parental consent.

      If a user “likes” a company that advertises on Facebook, or if she “checks in” (identifies her location) at a restaurant, or uses an application associated with that company, her image may appear next to an ad for the business on Facebook, with text suggesting that she endorses that business. It is unlikely the children or the parents will know it’s going to happen until after it has occurred.

      Under a settlement that a federal district court approved in August, Facebook will include new language in its terms of service stating that users under age 18 “represent” that their parents consented to the use of the children’s names and images in advertising. The settlement does not require Facebook to obtain consent from the parents.

      “The capture and republication of teen postings by Facebook is a pernicious assault on their rights to decide where their messages should go,” said Professor Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law, which is representing another challenger to the settlement.

      Last August, Facebook ponied up $20 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that challenged the unwitting use of consumers' names and photos in advertisin...

      Air pollution can be deadly for the unborn

      Florida study finds stepping outside may be as bad as inhaling cigarette smoke

      Everybody knows by now that cigarette smoke is bad news for pregnant women and their unborn child. But a new University of Florida study finds that stepping outside for a breath of fresh air may not be the answer.

      The UF researchers found that outside air may be just as toxic to pregnant women —if not more so — as cigarette smoke, increasing a mother-to-be’s risk of developing deadly complications such as preeclampsia.

      “Fetal development is very sensitive to environmental factors,” said Xiaohui Xu, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of epidemiology in the colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine. “That is why we wanted to do this research. Hypertension (high blood pressure), in particular, is associated with increased morbidity and mortality, causing a lot of problems for the mother and fetus, including preterm delivery.”

      Increased risk

      The researchers compared birth data with Environmental Protection Agency estimates of air pollution, finding that heavy exposure to four air pollutants led to a significantly increased risk for developing a high blood pressure disorder during pregnancy. The research was published in the January issue of the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

      The pollutants include two specific types of fine and coarse particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. According to the EPA, particulate matter includes acids, dust, metals and soil particles. These inhalable particles are released from industries and forest fires and can form when gases react with each other in the air. Sulfur dioxide is emitted from power plants and industries. Most carbon monoxide is produced by car exhaust.

      To gain a better understanding of how environmental factors may play a role in increasing the risk of developing hypertension during pregnancy, the researchers examined data from women who gave birth in Jacksonville, Fla., between 2004 and 2005 and environmental data from their communities. The sample included more than 22,000 pregnant women.

      They gauged how much pollution the women were exposed to throughout their pregnancies using data the EPA gathered daily to measure the levels of several pollutants.

      Among the sample, 4.7 percent developed a hypertensive disorder during pregnancy. Exposure to air pollutants throughout the first two trimesters of pregnancy increased women’s risk of developing one of these conditions, Xu said. 

      On the basis of these findings, the researchers say more air pollution control is necessary to prevent dangerous complications in pregnant women and babies. Although more studies are needed, the researchers hypothesize that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy may affect a woman’s normal pattern of blood pressure.

      Everybody knows by now that cigarette smoke is bad news for pregnant women and their unborn child. But a new University of Florida study finds that steppin...

      Tough states have fewer teen tanners using indoor salons

      The stronger the law, the less likely teens are to tan indoors

      Concern that indoor tanning may be partially responsible for the continued increase in melanoma, the most fatal of skin cancers, has led some states to place multiple restrictions on youth access. It appears to be working.

      A according to a study published online by the American Journal of Public Health, female high school students in states with indoor tanning laws -- particularly those with parental permission laws and age restrictions -- were less likely to engage in indoor tanning compared than students in states without any laws.

      A close look at the laws

      Researchers led by Dr. Gery Guy at CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, analyzed results of the 2009 and 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Surveys of U.S. high school students in grades 9-12. Among high school students, 23.4% of girls and 6.5% of boys engaged in indoor tanning.

      Dr. Guy and his colleagues looked at state indoor tanning laws, and the relationship between teens’ tanning behaviors and state laws. System access laws included warning statements and signs, limited advertising about the benefits of tanning, mandatory protective eyewear, operator-required incident reports, and penalties for violations. Youth access laws included parental permission for minors and age restrictions.

      The odds of teen-age girls engaging in indoor tanning in states with any indoor tanning laws were 30% less than those in states without any indoor tanning laws. The odds of female students in states with systems access, parental permission, and age restriction laws engaging in indoor tanning were 42% less than those in states without any laws. Laws were not associated with the prevalence of indoor tanning for teen-age boys.

      States with laws that included systems access, parental permission, and age restrictions had the lowest rates of indoor tanning among teen girls. This is the first study to look at the impact of such laws on indoor tanning rates.

      “State indoor tanning laws, especially age restrictions, may be effective in reducing indoor tanning among our nation’s youth,” said Dr. Guy. “We need to address the harms of indoor tanning, especially among children. Indoor tanning laws can be part of a comprehensive effort to prevent skin cancers and change social norms around tanned skin.”

      More laws in the works

      The numbers of states implementing new laws -- particularly age restrictions -- have increased substantially in recent years. Currently, six states (California, Illinois, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, and Vermont), restrict indoor tanning among people under 18 years of age. A number of states are either considering new youth access legislation or strengthening existing laws.

      The World Health Organization recommends that no one under the age of 18 years use indoor tanning, and the Food and Drug Administration has proposed reclassifying indoor tanning devices from low- to moderate-risk devices. The proposed order advises against the use of indoor tanning among minors aged younger than 18 years.

      Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Approximately 3.5 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancers are treated annually, and over 60,000 melanomas are diagnosed annually.

      While most cancers have been on the decline since the 1990s, melanomas have been on the rise, especially among young women.  

      Concerns that indoor tanning may be partially responsible for the continued increase in melanoma, the most fatal of skin cancers, has led some states to pl...

      Government's auto parts price-fixing probe expands

      Bridgestone faces $425 million fine

      Though consumers may have been unaware of it, the prices they paid for cars and some after-market parts may have been higher than necessary. A Justice Department investigation now stretching into its third year has ensnared another auto parts manufacturer.

      Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corp. has entered a guilty plea and agreed to pay a $425 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices of automotive anti-vibration rubber parts installed in cars sold in the United States and overseas.

      The parts were sold to Toyota, Nissan, Fuji Heavy Industries, Suzuki, and Isuzu, possibly increasing the cost to consumers who purchased those vehicles.

      Spreading investigation

      In addition to the criminal fine, Bridgestone also has agreed to cooperate with the department’s ongoing auto parts investigations which, at this point, has quietly spread throughout the industry.

      Back in October 2011 – early in the probe -- Bridgestone pleaded guilty and paid a $28 million fine for price-fixing and Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations in the marine hose industry, but did not disclose at the time of the plea that it had also participated in the anti-vibration rubber parts conspiracy. Bridgestone’s failure to disclose this conspiracy was a factor in determining the $425 million fine, Justice Department officials said.

      The investigation of the auto parts industry first came to public attention in September 2011, when the U.S. disclosed a $200 million fine and jail sentences for a number of Japanese executives at companies that produced automotive wire harnesses. Since that time the investigation has continued, with the FBI looking into reports of illegal price fixing for original automotive parts – what is referred to as the OEM market – as well as after-market parts, which consumers buy at retail automotive stores.

      Overpriced parts

      The investigation concludes sales of wire harnesses, anti-vibration rubber parts, electronic control units, fuel senders, heater control panels, instrument panel clusters, speed sensor wire assemblies, and seatbelts.

      So far, Bridgestone and 25 other companies have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty in the department’s ongoing auto parts investigation. The companies have agreed to pay a total of more than $2 billion in criminal fines, with charges filed against 28 people.

      “The Antitrust Division will take a hard line when repeat offenders fail to disclose additional anticompetitive behavior,” said Brent Snyder, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement program. “Today’s significant fine reaffirms the division’s commitment to holding companies accountable for conduct that harms U.S. consumers.”

      Dividing up the pie

      The government maintains Bridgestone and its co-conspirators held meetings and conversations in which they talked about what they would bid on contracts, where they would set prices and even which companies would bid on which contracts.

      After this exchange of information, the government says Bridgestone submitted bids and prices that reflected those agreements and sold and accepted payments for automotive anti-vibration rubber parts at prices higher than justified – in the words of investigators, “collusive and noncompetitive.” The collusion took place for eight years, from at least January 2001 until at least December 2008.

      Though consumers may have been unaware of it, the prices they paid for cars and some after-market parts may have been higher than necessary. A Justice Depa...

      Toyota recalls Tacoma, Lexus RX350 and Rav4 vehicles

      An electrical glitch could result in the illumination of various warning lights

      Toyota is recalling 261,114 model year 2012 and 2013 Toyota Tacoma, Lexus RX350, and model year 2012 Toyota Rav4 vehicles.

      In the affected vehicles, the brake system contains a brake actuator that adjusts the fluid pressure of each wheel cylinder. An electrical component within the actuator may experience an increased resistance resulting in the illumination of various warning lights, including those for the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system, Antilock Brake System (ABS), and Traction Control system.

      If this occurs, these systems could become inoperative, reducing the directional control assistance, increasing the risk of a crash.

      Toyota will notify owners, and Toyota and Lexus dealers will update the software for the Skid Control electronic control unit, free of charge. The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

      Toyota is recalling 261,114 model year 2012 and 2013 Toyota Tacoma, Lexus RX350, and model year 2012 Toyota Rav4 vehicles. In the affected vehicles, the...

      Toyota announces massive recall of Prius vehicles

      Transistors in the inverter module may become damaged from high operating temperatures

      Earlier this week, ConsumerAffairs reported that Toyota was preparing to recall 700,00 model year 2010 through 2014 Prius vehicles.

      In the affected vehicles, the Intelligent Power Module (IPM) inside the inverter module (a component of the hybrid system) contains transistors that may become damaged from high operating temperatures.

      That recall has now been announced.

      Toyota will notify owners and dealers will update the software for both the motor/generator control electronic control unit (ECU) and the hybrid control ECU, free of charge.

      If an owner experiences a failure of the inverter before the vehicle receives updated software, the dealer will replace the inverter assembly with a new one at no charge. The recall is expected to begin in late February 2014.

      Owners may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

      Earlier this week, ConsumerAffairs reported that Toyota was preparing to recall 700,00 model year 2010 through 2014 Prius vehicles. In the affected vehicl...

      Need tax help fast? Here's how

      You don't have to put up with heavy call volume

      Heading into the Presidents Day weekend, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding taxpayers that this holiday period typically marks one of the busiest weeks of the tax filing season for its phone lines.

      But you don't have to worry about getting through. There are alternatives to help find answers to commonly asked tax questions.

      The agency has several easy-to-use, online tools where you can check the status of your refund, request a copy of a tax transcript or get an answer to tax questions around the clock.

      “The entire week of the Presidents Day holiday marks a peak time in the number of calls to the IRS,” said Commissioner John Koskinen, “and we encourage taxpayers to visit IRS.gov as the best place to get quick help.”

      Due to limited resources, the IRS has changed the services provided at the toll-free telephone number and IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers. To save time and find answers faster, a good place to start is 1040 Central for a quick overview. The IRS Services Guide also provides a list of resources.

      What to do

      Here are some of the most common reasons people call the IRS over Presidents Day holiday week and the faster and easier ways to get answers:

      Find your refund

      More than 90% of refunds are issued in less than 21 days. IRS representatives will not provide individual refund information before then. Taxpayers can easily find information about their refund by using the Where’s My Refund? tool. It’s available on IRS.gov and on the Smartphone app, IRS2Go. Where’s My Refund? provides taxpayers with the most up-to-date information available. Taxpayers must have information from their current, pending tax return to access their refund information. Refund information is updated just once a day, generally overnight, so there’s no need to check more than once a day.

      Getting a W-2

      Employers are required to send to their employees a Form W-2, Statement of Earnings, by January 31. Employees should allow enough time for their form to be mailed to their address of record. If form W-2 is not received by mid-February, employees should first contact their employer to ensure they have the correct address on file.

      After exhausting all options with the employer, employees may contact the IRS and we will send a letter to the employer. However, it's a good idea to call after Presidents Day week to avoid long wait times.

      Need a copy of your tax return or transcript?

      Taxpayers can easily order a return or transcript on the IRS.gov website, the IRS2Go Smartphone app or by mailing a completed Form 4506-T. More information on these options is available at IRS.gov.

      Ordering a tax return or tax transcript does not mean a taxpayer will get a refund faster. The two are not connected in any way. IRS transcripts are often used to validate income and tax filing status for mortgage, student and small business loan applications and to help with tax preparation.

      Answers to tax law questions

      Questions about what filing status means, whether to file a tax return or who can be claimed as a dependent? Simply do a keyword search on IRS.gov; use Publication 17, the annual, searchable income tax guide; or the IRS Tax Map, which allows search by topic or keyword for single-point access to tax law information by subject. Taxpayers can even call TeleTax at 1-800-829-4477 for recorded information on a variety of general and business tax topics.

      Can’t pay a tax bill?

      For taxpayers whose concern isn’t a refund, but rather, a tax bill they can’t pay, the Online Payment Agreement tool can help them determine in a matter of minutes whether they qualify for an installment agreement with the IRS. And those whose tax obligation is even more serious, the Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier can help them determine if they qualify for an offer in compromise, an agreement with the IRS that settles their tax liability for less than the full amount owed.

      Tax-preparation help

      Free tax return help is available nationwide from volunteers and on IRS.gov with Free File. Local community partners operate roughly 13,000 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) sites nationwide. Find a location nearby by searching “Free Tax Help” on IRS.gov.

      IRS Free File is offered by 14 tax software companies that make their brand-name products available for free to the 70 percent of taxpayers who earned $58,000 or less last year. Free File Fillable Forms is available for households whose earnings are more than $58,000 and are comfortable preparing their taxes.

      Heading into the Presidents Day weekend, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding taxpayers that this holiday period typically marks one of the busi...

      MyNicKnaxs recalls Reduce Weight Fruta Planta

      The products contain an active pharmaceutical ingredient not listed on the label

      MyNicKnaxs is recalling all lots of Reduce Weight Fruta Planta, which contain contain 10.2 mg of Phenolphthalein, an active pharmaceutical ingredient not declared on the label.

      No illnesses or injuries have been reported to the company in connection with these products.

      Phenolphthalein was once an ingredient used in over-the-counter laxatives but, because of concerns of carcinogenicity, is not currently approved for marketing in the U. S., making Reduce Weight Fruta Planta an unapproved new drug.

      Customers should immediately discontinue use.

      Consumers with questions should contact MyNicKnaxs at 386-337-8142 Monday - Friday, 2pm - 7:00 pm, EDT, or by email at nicnaxs@yahoo.com.

      MyNicKnaxs is recalling all lots of Reduce Weight Fruta Planta, which contain contain 10.2 mg of Phenolphthalein, an active pharmaceutical ingredient not d...

      Where's your refund? You can check online

      IRS would like you to use their tool instead of calling

      Taxpayers eager to receive their tax refund are no doubt busy preparing their returns and many have already filed. Now, when does that refund arrive?

      It depends. If you filed electronically, you have taken the first step in speeding up your refund. If you have set up direct deposit to receive your money you have taken a second important step. You should get your money within three weeks.

      Where's My Refund?

      For those who want to track the progress of their refund the IRS offers an online tool called Where's My Refund? You can access it from your desktop or three the free mobile app IRS2GO. 

      According to the IRS, Where's My Refund will provide the most up to date information available about your refund. The tool is updated once a day, usually overnight, so you don’t need to check more often.

      The IRS says nine out of 10 refunds are issued within 21 days of receiving it electronically. However, it's possible your tax return may require additional review and take longer. If so, the tool will help you stay in touch with your progress.

      Almost immediately

      You can use Where's My Refund to start checking on the status of your return within 24 hours after the tax agency has received your e-filed return or four weeks after you mail a paper return. Where’s My Refund has a tracker that displays progress through three stages:

      • Return Received
      • Refund Approved and
      • Refund Sent

      Trying to talk with an IRS representative about your refund will be difficult. For starters, the agency doesn't make representatives available if it has been fewer than 21 days since you filed electronically or less than six weeks since mailing a paper return.

      Personalized information

      The information you receive through Where's My Refund is personalized, based on the processing of your return. The tool will provide an actual refund date as soon as the IRS processes your tax return and approves your refund. The IRS produced the video below to walk you through the process of using the tool.

      Speed estimates are just that – estimates. Sometimes your status may change from “return received” to “refund approved” in just a few days, but it could take longer and a date will not be provided until your refund has gotten a gree light. However, if the tool shows that your return is in the “received” stage, then it is currently being processed.

      There are factors that could cause your process to slow down. According to the IRS, mistakes in returns, returns that are incomplete or ones flagged for further review – usually not a good sign – are common reasons your refund could be slow in coming to you.

      Taxpayers eager to receive their tax refund are no doubt busy preparing their returns and many have already filed. Now, when does that refund arrive?It d...

      Federal court agrees First Amendment applies to online expert advice

      The case involves a Texas licensing body's attempt to silence a veterinarian

      A federal judge in Texas has ruled in favor of Dr. Ron Hines, a veterinarian whose license was suspended for giving pet owners online advice about their pets. The ruling potentially clears the way for professionals around the country to provide information and advice -- free or for a fee -- via the Internet. 

      “It shouldn’t be illegal for a veterinarian to give veterinary advice,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes, who represented Hines. “That includes advice given over the Internet.  This case will help ensure that the Internet can be used to communicate expert advice better, faster and more cheaply than has ever been possible.”

      In her ruling, Senior Judge Hilda Tagle wrote that, “In sum, the Court finds that the First Amendment applies to the professional regulations at issue in this case, and that the regulations, as applied to Hines’s professional speech, are subject to heightened scrutiny[.]” 

      Hines, 69, has used the Internet since 2002 to help pet owners, often for free. On his website, 2ndChance.info, he has helped people who received conflicting diagnoses from their local vets, who lived in parts of the world without access to trustworthy veterinarians, and who could not afford traditional veterinary care.

      As far as is known, no one has complained about his advice. But in 2013,  the Texas Veterinary Board shut Hines down, suspended his license, fined him and made him retake portions of the veterinary licensing exam.

      Why? It turns out that in Texas, as in a majority of states, it is a crime for a veterinarian to give advice over the Internet without having first physically examined the animal.   

      Limits on state power 

      Hines’ case raises a First Amendment conflict that has never been clearly resolved -- namely, does the government's power to license occupations trump free speech? 

      Although it will take a Supreme Court decision to settle the question once and for all, the Texas ruling is, for now, precedent-setting.

      “The court’s ruling sets a very high bar for Texas to justify its blanket ban on online veterinary advice,” said Institute for Justice-Texas Executive Director Matt Miller.  “The court squarely rejected the government’s argument that these are merely restrictions on conduct, and recognized the law for what it is:  a content-based restriction on speech.  People don’t check their First Amendment rights at the door when they enter a licensed occupation.”

      A victory in this lawsuit could unleash a revolution in the way information is shared across the U.S. and around the world.  Dr. Hines’ challenge has implications for all speaking professions across the country, as well as the countless people worldwide who benefit from them, an Institute for Justice spokesman said.

      The Institute for Justice is a libertarian public-interest law firm headquartered in Arlington, Va.

      Dr. Ron Hines & friendsA federal judge in Texas has ruled in favor of Dr. Ron Hines, a veterinarian whose license was suspended for giving pet ow...