2019
August
28
Wednesday

Welcome to your Daily. Our five handpicked stories touch on the question of responsibility in the opioid crisis, a changing vision of Western leadership, efforts to address an overlooked consequence of megafires, signs of progress on child labor, and Hollywood’s evolving views on age

But first, Brexit!

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just swerved British politics into oncoming traffic. We’ll have more to say tomorrow about Mr. Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament until Oct. 14. But in essence, he’s daring Parliament to oppose his plans on Brexit.

Mr. Johnson wants to leave the European Union by Oct. 31, no matter what. To prevent that, Parliament now pretty much needs to blow everything up, calling for new elections Mr. Johnson thinks he’ll win.

Maybe he’s right, maybe he isn’t. But one thing is more certain: There is no easy out for Britain on this issue. The country’s vote on Brexit was legitimate. But so, too, is parliamentary power. If they conflict, that’s no mistake. It’s democracy.

If a country can’t make up its mind, no democratic process – be it a prorogue (or discontinuation) of Parliament, a referendum, or an election – can magically concoct a solution. Britain, like the United States, can’t forever avoid the fact that many of its citizens have strongly opposing views that aren’t likely to change soon. That means the only practical way forward, democratically, is in the much harder work of finding common purpose, however distasteful that might seem in a polarized age.

Share this article

shadow

A deeper look

1. When it comes to opioid crisis, what does justice look like?

What would represent justice in the opioid crisis? This week, a ruling and a settlement offer suggest paths forward, but litigation alone is unlikely to offer a complete solution.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 8 Min. )

Who bears responsibility for the opioid crisis, and how should that be equitably apportioned?

That’s at the heart of two major developments in the legal battles over whether drug companies should be forced to pay for at least a portion of the estimated $1 trillion cost of the opioid crisis in America, which has left more than 400,000 people dead from overdoses.

On Monday, Oklahoma – the first state to go to trial against an opioid manufacturer – won its case against Johnson & Johnson, which was ordered to pay $572 million. And Tuesday, news reports revealed a $10 billion to $12 billion global settlement offer from Purdue Pharma. But the deals may not be commensurate, or fair, experts says, given the two companies’ roles in the opioid crisis, and their respective financial resources.

“The big problem is a lot of harm is already done,” says Adam Zimmerman, a professor at Loyola Law School. “How do we remediate that problem? What is the price of dealing with that problem? And to what extent are defendants in these cases responsible for this problem?”

“That’s going to remain a huge sticking point,” he adds. “How do you put a price on the opioid crisis?”

Collapse

1. When it comes to opioid crisis, what does justice look like?

The legal battle in courtrooms around the country over who is responsible for the opioid crisis, and who should pay to fix it, took two major steps toward a conclusion this week.

On Monday, in the first opioid case to actually go to trial, a judge in Oklahoma ruled that pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson helped fuel the crisis in the state, and ordered the company to pay $572 million this year toward treatment programs and other initiatives.

Barely 24 hours later, reports emerged that the owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of the painkiller OxyContin, are offering to settle more than 2,000 lawsuits against the company for $10 to $12 billion. Purdue settled a separate lawsuit in Oklahoma for $270 million in March.

More than 400,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses since 1999. The epidemic’s cost to communities and governments around the country is in excess of $1 trillion. Both Oklahoma’s lawsuit and the consolidated cases against Purdue Pharma place responsibility for the crisis squarely on drug manufacturers, and seek to make them pay for the costs of the epidemic to individuals, communities, and government resources.

But even as some cheer these milestones, the Purdue settlement and Johnson & Johnson verdict represent a fraction of the estimated cost of the opioid crisis in the United States and Oklahoma, respectively. That suggests that the question of who bears responsibility and whether they can be compelled to pay for the fallout remains far from resolved.

“They’ve created the problem, or at least substantially contributed to it, and shouldn’t be allowed to walk away and leave someone else holding the bag,” says Richard Ausness, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law in Lexington, but he adds that there has to be a balance. “They should certainly contribute to solving the problem. It should be substantial, but it shouldn’t be enough to cripple them or put them out of business.”

Among the issues remaining to address are how to make these settlements and court rulings proportional and fair; what, if anything, a company can do to make things right; and whether other parties bear responsibility as well, such as pharmacists, doctors, or even the individuals who took the drugs.

Shawna Covington, an Oklahoman who lost her mom to prescription opioid abuse, says she could never understand how it was so easy for her mom to obtain so many drugs. Why, she wondered, didn’t it set off a red flag at pharmacies, where on top of numerous other pills her mother was able to get huge bottles of OxyContin? And it was all done legally, with a prescription from her mom’s long-time doctor.

“I do think it was marketed and the pharmaceutical companies are responsible, yes. But ... the doctor has to take some ownership as well,” says Ms. Covington. “I don’t sit up at night thinking of Johnson & Johnson. I think of this doctor.”

A public nuisance

Johnson & Johnson is the first company to be judged legally culpable for fueling the opioid epidemic. Oklahoma, which has lost more than 6,000 residents to painkiller overdoses since 2000, sued three companies in 2017 but the other two settled out of court.

Judge Thad Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson’s “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns have caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome” (NAS) violated Oklahoma’s public nuisance law.

Sales reps for the company were not provided any training “on the disease of addiction ... [or] related to the history of opioid use and epidemics in the U.S. or human history,” the opinion added. Moreover, the defendants sought to convince doctors that patients showing signs of addiction were in fact suffering from undertreatment of pain, and needed more opioids – not less.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, in a phone interview with the Monitor, accuses Johnson & Johnson of waging “a multimillion-dollar brainwashing campaign,” conducted in concert with other drug companies, to convince doctors that opioids were only rarely addictive.

“At the end of the day, one of the most important parts of the judge’s decision was establishing causation and responsibility of Johnson & Johnson for the epidemic in the state,” he says.

Attorney General Hunter says the $572 million award does not reflect “the alpha-to-omega harm” to Oklahoma since the beginning of the epidemic, but rather the costs going forward.

The amount of that award was based on the state’s estimate of the costs of abating the opioid crisis for one year, including treatment costs and rehabilitation programs. The court retained jurisdiction over the abatement proceedings, and appeared to leave the door open to a possible increase in damages.

At Compass Clinic, which provides outpatient care for opioid abuse in Oklahoma City, case manager Rhea Frick welcomes the verdict and thinks drug manufacturers should be held accountable.

“Ultimately I think the drug companies need to push the doctors to educate the patients on the dangers and just exactly how addictive the medications are,” says Ms. Frick in a phone interview, adding that the vast majority of the people they serve – “everyday people” like teachers, ministers, veterans, she says – got addicted after being prescribed pain medication following a surgery or injury. “Nobody is warning them about the dangers of how addictive the medications really are.”

“Public’s first glimpse under the hood”

The trial afforded much more transparency than a settlement negotiation, revealing details that could be used in future lawsuits, said Elizabeth Burch, a professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, in an email. In particular, the public learned about how a subsidiary created a new type of opium poppy that “enabled the growth of oxycodone,” and became the No. 1 supplier not only of that drug but also hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine in the U.S.

“This was the public’s first glimpse under the hood” in the ongoing opioid litigation across the country, she adds.

Balkman’s ruling could be challenged, however. Johnson & Johnson vowed to appeal along with its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies, and said it had “strong grounds” for doing so, stating that its products constitute less than 1 percent of total opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma, were responsibly marketed, and complied with federal and state laws.

“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” said Michael Ullman, executive vice president of Johnson & Johnson, though he expressed “deep sympathy for everyone affected.”

The company also indicated that the judge’s verdict represented a massive overreach of public nuisance law, arguing it ignored a century of precedent. 

Judges in North Dakota and Connecticut rejected similar public nuisance claims earlier this year.

That is no guarantee Johnson & Johnson will be successful on appeal, as Oklahoma’s public nuisance law is unusually broad. But there are other potential weaknesses in the ruling.

“The court didn’t really talk about why Johnson & Johnson – which in the opioid marketplace is a relatively small player – is responsible for all these damages, rather than all these other sellers in the marketplace,” says Adam Zimmerman, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Poster child for an epidemic

Purdue Pharma is a relatively small player, in terms of raw financial resources. Its annual revenues totaled about $3 billion in 2017, compared with more than $81 billion for Johnson & Johnson and $198 billion for pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Corp. last year.

However, Purdue’s OxyContin turned its owners, the Sackler family, into one of America’s richest families, surpassing the Mellons and Rockefellers. 

Together, Purdue and the Sackler family have been branded as the central villains of the opioid epidemic. There have been protests outside the company’s Connecticut headquarters, museums have turned down Sackler family donations, and Harvard University has been asked to remove the Sackler name from campus buildings.

Numerous allegations stretching back years claim the company helped spark the opioid crisis in the 1990s through aggressive and deceptive marketing of OxyContin and its addictive potential. Purdue pleaded guilty in 2007 to misbranding the drug and paid $600 million in fines, and in March the company settled a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma for $270 million.

“For years, members of the Sackler family tried to hide their role in creating and profiting off the opioid epidemic,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey Wednesday. “We owe it to families in Massachusetts and across the country to hold Purdue and the Sacklers accountable, ensure that the evidence of what they did is made public, and make them pay for the damage they have caused.”

SOURCE: The Associated Press, Drug Enforcement Administration
|
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Purdue and the Sackler family have denied the allegations in more than 2,000 lawsuits against them, but said in a statement that while the company “is prepared to defend itself vigorously in the opioid litigation,” it believes “a constructive global resolution is the best path forward.”

According to news reports, they are offering to declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and then restructure into a for-profit trust aimed at easing the opioid crisis. The trust would provide cities, counties, and states in the settlement with drugs for preventing overdoses valued as well as the profits from Purdue’s sales, together valued at $7 to $8 billion. The Sacklers would add $3 billion from their estimated net worth of $13 billion.

“The people and communities affected by the opioid crisis need help now,” Purdue’s statement added.

The company’s settlement with Oklahoma earlier this year hinted at its willingness to take long-term responsibility for abating the opioid epidemic, with the $270 million agreement including $75 million to be put toward an addiction treatment and research center. That may still not be enough for the plaintiffs suing Purdue, however.

“They’ve sort of been the poster child for all of this,” says Professor Ausness.

“In terms of their culpability, it probably isn’t [fair] considering the total cost of the opioid epidemic and their contribution to it,” he adds. “On the other hand, what they may be saying is, in effect, ‘This is all we’ve got,’ and if that’s true then that’s all [plaintiffs] are going to get no matter how culpable Purdue is.”

“What is the price?”

The federal government will have its own responsibilities moving forward, says Professor Ausness, particularly now that the opioid epidemic is being driven more by illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl than prescription painkillers.

And despite the two developments this week, the major questions over who is responsible for the opioid epidemic remain.

“The big problem is a lot of harm is already done,” says Professor Zimmerman. “How do we remediate that problem? What is the price of dealing with that problem? And to what extent are defendants in these cases responsible for this problem?”

In a sense, he says, this is a crisis that “we’re all kind of responsible for,” and it will take broad cooperation to formulate a comprehensive solution.

“This is one step, a small step, toward trying to fix it. But it’s not the only step, it can’t be,” he says. “Litigation will provide one well-needed source of funds to combat the crisis. But hopefully it also sparks a dialogue in our communities and state legislatures and Congress to think about more systemic solutions.”

SOURCE: The Associated Press, Drug Enforcement Administration
|
Jacob Turcotte/Staff
shadow

2. Disarray at G-7 summit: Is Western leadership dying, or adapting?

Speaking of common purpose, the G-7 was founded on Western powers’ shared vision for the world. As that recedes, does the G-7 matter? This week offered a clue.

Mark
Ian Langsdon/AP
Flanked by President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron (center) addresses the G-7 leaders during a working session in Biarritz, France, Aug. 26, 2019. Other leaders attending were Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

The Group of Seven summit in France was described around the world as a show of disunity and disarray – not to mention American retreat. And it posed the question: Does a Cold War-era Western group based on common interests and values such as democracy and free markets still have a global leadership role to play in the 21st century?

The answer, thanks to clever French diplomacy and progress in forging common positions on key global issues, seemed to be that while Western leadership may be down, it is not out.

Exhibit A: host Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the summit’s sidelines. The effort even earned a bit of praise from the normally anti-Iran and anti-multilateral U.S. president, Donald Trump.

Still, for some experts, no amount of adapting to new global realities is going to make a leadership model designed for the 20th century an answer to the challenges of the 21st. “If what we’re seeing is indicative of what passes for Western consensus, then no amount of putting lipstick on a pig is going to cover over the inability of Western leadership to address today’s fundamental issues,” says Notre Dame Professor Michael Desch.

Collapse

Disarray at G-7 summit: Is Western leadership dying, or adapting?

When French President Emmanuel Macron declared it would be “pointless” to try to deliver the traditional final communique at the G-7 summit he hosted last weekend it prompted some to wonder if maybe the organization itself is pointless.

Leaders of the Group of Seven major economies had been especially riven by conflicting perspectives on global issues from climate change to trade.

But the larger question behind the doubts about the G-7 is whether a Cold War-era grouping based on common interests and values such as democracy, the rule of law, free markets, and human rights still has a global leadership role to play in the 21st century.

One answer might be that a more multipolar and nationalistic world certainly seems to pay less heed to Western leadership. After G-7 leaders pledged $22 million to help fight fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, an indignant Brazil turned the aid down, with President Jair Bolsonaro saying it reflected a “colonial” mentality.

On the other hand, when Mr. Macron issued a surprise invitation to Javad Zarif to the summit’s sidelines the Iranian foreign minister jumped at the offer and met with a number of Western officials. The effort to make headway on the Iranian nuclear challenge even earned a bit of praise from the normally anti-Iran and anti-multilateral U.S. president, Donald Trump.

In the end, the message sent by a summit widely described around the world as a show of disunity and disarray – not to mention American retreat – seemed to be that while Western leadership may be down, it is not out.

What some clever French diplomacy – and progress in forging common positions on key global issues from the environment to Hong Kong democracy – demonstrated is that there is still a role for the leadership and common action of the world’s major democratic economic powers.

“It’s possible for the headlines coming out of this summit to be that Donald Trump and [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson are the harbingers of the failure of Western diplomacy and that multilateralism in the West is dead – but that’s not what happened at all,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president in global security and geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

New circumstances, shared values

“This was not the memorial service for the G-7,” he adds, “this was the G-7 adapting to a new set of circumstances and ultimately moving a number of balls forward on issues of key interest to the major economies and democracies.”

One of the most glaring “new circumstances” is a U.S. president who relishes the role of disrupter and has shown considerable disdain for the traditional American-led, post-World-War-II multilateralism the G-7 embodies.

For Mr. Alterman, the G-7 is a “family” working together on the basis of common interests and values. And what struck him about this summit in the French Mediterranean city of Biarritz is how the family was able to overcome differences – and accommodate an unpredictable “father” in Mr. Trump – to make some useful progress.

“The father’s not playing the traditional role,” Mr. Alterman says, “and yet the members of the family had a useful meal and got stuff done.”

The divisions buffeting Western leadership and doubts about its relevance should surprise no one, some say, given that the conditions that prompted the creation of the G-7 no longer exist.

“The existence of a common threat in the Soviet Union and the pressures of the Cold War were critical, it’s what pushed the allies together and prompted the U.S. to maintain its embrace of Europe,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.

The end of the Cold War has indeed denied the Western powers that original common threat, he says, even as domestic political upheaval and the weakening of the Western democracies’ traditional moderate-right and moderate-left parties have contributed to tough times for Western multilateralism.

But what haven’t gone away, Professor Lieber says, are the “underlying shared interests and shared values,” ranging from democracy and free-market economies to freedom of speech and religion and the role of women in society, that make a forum like the G-7 matter.

“Those underlying commonalities and motivating values still give an essential purpose to a community like the G-7, despite the disarray,” Dr. Lieber says.

New leadership model

Still, for some experts in international relations, no amount of adapting to new global realities or accommodating of chaotic and nationalist leaders is going to make a leadership model designed for the 20th century an answer to the challenges of the 21st.

“If what we’re seeing [at the G-7 summit] is indicative of what passes for Western consensus, then no amount of putting lipstick on a pig is going to cover over the inability of Western leadership to address today’s fundamental issues,” says Michael Desch, professor of international relations and director of the Notre Dame International Security Center in Indiana.

To fashion a new model of global problem-solving, Western countries and the world more broadly will have to start by recognizing there is no longer one benevolent superpower ready and willing to shoulder the burden of leadership, Professor Desch says.

“In a period when the U.S. strode the world like a colossus, systems based on one power with the interest and capability of leading were feasible,” he says. “What the world needs today is a way to foster cooperation on critical global issues without a hegemonic power. It will be tough,” he adds, “but it might be the only way to move forward.”

Professor Desch says he did catch a glimpse at the G-7 summit of one potential avenue for global problem-solving. (He says even the word “leadership” may not fit what the 21st century requires.) What may be called for, he says, is the kind of ad-hoc leadership-by-issue that was displayed by Mr. Macron on the Iranian nuclear issue, or even Mr. Trump taking the helm of the China trade dispute, which is a global challenge affecting much more than just the U.S.

“Macron’s invitation to the Iranians to crash the [G-7] party may indeed be the new model for moving issues forward,” he says.

The French president’s gambit did seem to move the nuclear issue’s two main antagonists, Iran and the U.S., closer to direct talks, with Mr. Trump sounding open to engaging with Tehran and even to the idea of some kind of loans to prop up a staggering Iranian economy.

By Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was insisting that debilitating U.S. sanctions would have to be lifted before he would meet with Mr. Trump. Still, the way Mr. Macron went about “breaking the ice between the Iranians and the Americas … demonstrated extraordinarily skillful diplomacy,” says CSIS’s Mr. Alterman – noting that such diplomatic acumen underscored the relevance of Western leadership.

A place for Putin?

Another initiative that to some might fall into the category of realist thinking for today’s world is President Trump’s insistence that Russia be readmitted to what was the G8 – until Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The call for welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the exclusive club received little support. But Mr. Trump hinted that as the host of next year’s summit he could very well issue an invitation to Mr. Putin on his own.

Inviting Mr. Putin might strike some as akin to Mr. Macron’s invitation to Mr. Zarif to Biarritz.

But Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber says, not so. Emphasizing the importance of Western values to the purpose of the G-7, he says there is nothing about Mr. Putin’s leadership of Russia that suggests he has any interest in those values – unless, he adds, it is to undermine them.

The idea of inviting Mr. Putin back in “demonstrates a serious misunderstanding on Trump’s part of what the G-7 is,” Dr. Lieber says.

“When Russia was invited in in the first place it was in a blush of naïve hope that Russia would embrace everything Western Europe represents, from democracy to the rule of law and so on,” he adds. “Obviously that hasn’t happened, so Russia has no place rejoining” the club.

shadow

3. Where there’s wildfire, there’s smoke. Protecting ‘clean-air refugees.’

Taking action on climate change can help people from feeling helpless. Out West, officials are fighting not just wildfires, but smoke, saying, “We want the most vulnerable people in our community to know they’re not alone.”

Mark
Elaine Thompson/AP
A man twirls a child in a waterfront park as downtown Seattle disappears in a smoky haze, Aug. 19, 2018. Wildfire smoke produced the lowest air quality readings ever recorded in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and a handful of other Western cities the past two years.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Wildfire smoke has produced the lowest air quality readings ever recorded in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and a handful of other Western cities the past two years. Public health concerns over smoke have prodded elected officials across the region to seek remedies.

In Seattle, five public buildings have been designated as clean-air centers, with filtration systems upgraded to reduce airborne pollutants. “There was the realization that we need to be prepared for [wildfire smoke] going forward,” says Julia Reed, a mayoral adviser, about the $450,000 pilot project.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats from Oregon, have proposed legislation that would provide federal funding to communities to set up emergency smoke shelters. “We’re looking at a wave of clean-air refugees,” Senator Wyden says.

The pall that settles over Western cities can likewise darken the mood of residents. Libby Metcalf, a University of Montana researcher, suggests that bringing people together to discuss their experiences can alleviate the mental health effects. “It’s a way for people to feel like they don’t have to face what’s happening on their own,” she says.

Collapse

Where there’s wildfire, there’s smoke. Protecting ‘clean-air refugees.’

Summer in Seattle offers a luminous respite from the rest of the year. The clouds depart and carry away the rains as the sky shades cobalt blue and the sun casts golden light from Puget Sound to Mount Rainier. The city feels liberated.

Or so residents recall of an earlier time. In the past decade, summer has tended to bring an unseasonal gray in the form of wildfire smoke, trapping the city in a Beijing-like haze for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Last year, smoke from blazes in eastern Washington, Oregon, California, and Canada caused air quality in Seattle to drop to unhealthy levels for 24 days, matching the 2017 total.

The city has responded by designating two community centers and three other public buildings as clean-air centers where residents can take shelter when wildfires turn the skies ashen. The $450,000 pilot project has funded upgrades to each facility’s filtration system to reduce airborne pollutants. Julia Reed, a senior policy adviser to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who announced the city’s plan in June, explains that recent megafires in the West forced a reckoning with the region’s hotter, drier summers.

“When the smoke came in again last year, it was like, ‘Wow, this is happening – this is climate change affecting our community right now,’” Ms. Reed says. “There was the realization that we need to be prepared for this kind of thing going forward.”

Wildfire smoke has produced the lowest air quality readings ever recorded in a handful of Western cities the past two years, including San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. The rising public health concerns over the increasing size, frequency, and intensity of wildfires have prodded elected officials across the West to seek remedies. Their proposals advance practical solutions that, on another level, counter the dual sense of futility and isolation that climate change can provoke.

United States Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats from Oregon, have introduced legislation that would provide federal funding to communities to improve ventilation systems in public buildings and set up emergency smoke shelters. A related grant program would cover the cost to smokeproof the homes of low-income residents.

“What I’ve seen in the region, particularly last summer, is that we’re looking at a wave of clean-air refugees,” Senator Wyden says. “The fact is, this is a public health emergency, and people are getting pounded. There has to be a way to help them.”

Wildfires release particulate matter that can aggravate respiratory and heart ailments. Children and seniors face the greatest risk, and researchers estimate that the annual number of premature deaths linked to wildfire smoke could climb from 17,000 to 42,000 by 2050. 

Most homes in Seattle lack air conditioning and indoor air filters, and even with portable air purifiers available for under $100, the cost can prove excessive for people on a fixed income. The city established three of its clean-air centers in areas with higher numbers of low-income residents, seniors, and homeless people. Ms. Reed describes the new program as an effort to protect their mental health as much as their physical well-being.

“Community cohesion and an understanding that all of us are having to confront climate change is central to this plan,” she says. “We want the most vulnerable people in our community to know they’re not alone.”

“It’s about now”

A strange sort of fog invaded the University of California, Davis on what had started as a cloudless summer day in 2008. Lisa Miller stared out from her office window at the California National Primate Research Center located on the campus.

The midday haze puzzled Ms. Miller, who leads the center’s respiratory diseases unit, until she remembered that several large wildfires were burning in Northern California. She soon realized that the fires presented an inadvertent opportunity to study the effects of exposure to wildfire smoke on 50 rhesus macaque monkeys born weeks earlier.

Ms. Miller has tracked their respiratory health over the years, comparing them with another group of monkeys born a year later when skies remained mostly clear. She has found worrisome results.

The monkeys exposed to smoke showed evidence of conditions that impair breathing, and their immune systems appear less resistant to infection. Ms. Miller offers a caveat to the findings, pointing out that the monkeys, by virtue of living outside, inhaled more smoke than most humans would breathe during wildfires.

“But the bottom line is that it’s the youngsters that are most susceptible to these kinds of environmental events,” she says. “So anything we can do to reduce the amount of exposure of youngsters to wildfires and smoke – whether at home or at school – could have significant impact on their health for a lifetime.”

The nascent health research into wildfire smoke reflects the surging threat that megafires pose to the West. The region’s fire season has swelled to some 250 days, or 105 days longer than in 1970, and wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres a year since 2000, almost twice the annual total during the 1990s.

This summer, aside from Alaska, fewer catastrophic wildfires have ignited in the West than at the same point in either of the past two years. Fire researchers and climate scientists regard the reprieve as temporary – a cautionary note with particular resonance in California.

The deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history struck last November in and around the city of Paradise, killing 86 people and incinerating nearly 14,000 homes. Haze from the fire shrouded Northern California and drifted 150 miles south to the San Francisco Bay Area, where one county opened smoke shelters.

“The air was disgusting,” says Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks, a Democrat from Oakland. “You didn’t want to breathe.” She has proposed legislation to establish clean-air shelters through a state grant program that would cover the cost to retrofit ventilation systems in schools, libraries, and community and senior centers.

“If this is our new normal, we need to address it,” she says. “We need to think about how we can provide safe haven for people on fixed incomes, seniors, and others without access to clean air where they live.”

The state has begun shifting its forest management strategy toward preventive efforts to reduce wildfire destruction. Air quality experts assert that, in similar fashion, policymakers should embrace new methods for shielding residents from smoke.

“The last couple years have made it clear that we have to change our thinking about both fires and smoke,” says Alan Abbs, a legislative officer with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The public agency backs Ms. Wicks’ bill. “It’s not just about preparing for the future. It’s about now.”

Emotional oases

Seattle officials have enlisted Dan Jaffe, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Washington, to analyze the effectiveness of the city’s clean-air centers. In his work, he has shown that the West’s wildfires nullify much of the progress made in lowering air pollution through reduced vehicle emissions and dependence on coal.

“Most of us live in the Northwest because we like getting outside and enjoying the outdoors,” he says. “To have all that smoke keep coming through, it’s really depressing.”

The mental health effects of extended exposure to wildfire smoke remain even less understood than the physical toll, largely because megafires are a relatively new force in nature.

In one of the few studies to explore the topic, a team of Canadian scientists examined the psychological fallout from wildfire smoke on four communities in the Northwest Territories in 2014. They found that residents admitted to emergency rooms that summer reported feelings of fear, despair, and isolation at higher rates compared with those admitted the prior two years.

The study of how people interact with and react to the environment, including their ability to adapt to climate change, occupies a group of researchers in the Human Dimensions Lab at the University of Montana in Missoula. The city spreads across a valley that fills with smoke from fires for varying stretches every year, and in 2017, residents experienced its worst air quality day on record.

Libby Metcalf, the lab’s co-director, has learned that giving residents a chance to come together to discuss their experiences alleviates anxiety about their fate and the planet’s. “There’s a need to have a community gathering space to share stories about wildfire,” she says. “It’s a way for people to feel like they don’t have to face what’s happening on their own.”

The American Psychological Association has identified communal support as essential to easing the depression, desolation, and resignation that can burden people as they cope with the impact of climate change. The legislation that Senators Wyden and Merkley proposed earlier this year to safeguard communities from wildfire smoke would create a federal grant program to fortify crisis services for physical and mental health alike.

“It’s extremely valuable to bring people together to help them with what they’re going through,” Senator Wyden says. “That’s even more true for low-income people, seniors, and people with health care concerns who might not have the means to get help otherwise.”

For Seattle residents unable to afford air conditioning or a trip out of town, or who lack a support network, the city’s clean-air centers could serve as emotional oases amid the haze. Ms. Reed, the mayoral adviser, views the centers as places suited for collective catharsis.

“All of us see climate change happening right outside our window,” she says. “Coming together is a way to make people feel less helpless.”

shadow

Point of Progress

What's going right

4. Child labor in decline: Life gets better for 94 million children

When children are allowed an education instead of being forced to work, it has ripple effects for decades. The results include everything from better earnings to healthier families.

Mark

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

Almost 100 million more children are getting to have a childhood than at the beginning of the 21st century.

Child labor has dropped by 38% since 2000, according to data from Save the Children. “In 2000, there were 246 million children in labour ... compared to 152 million in 2016,” writes Phoebe Marabi, a senior specialist on child protection with Save the Children in Nairobi, in an email. That progress has come through a range of policy efforts. Education, for example, is an essential area.

Child labor is a tough, complicated issue, says Benjamin Smith, senior specialist for child labor at the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency. He says the recent reductions are good news, but should be taken with a grain of salt.

“It is not going fast enough,” he says.

One region where there remains much more work to be done, Mr. Smith adds, is Africa.

“There is no country ... exempt from the problem.”

Collapse

Child labor in decline: Life gets better for 94 million children

Almost 100 million more children are getting to have a childhood than at the beginning of the 21st century.

Child labor has dropped by 38% since 2000, according to data from international humanitarian organization Save the Children. “In 2000, there were 246 million children in labour ... compared to 152 million in 2016,” writes Phoebe Marabi, a senior specialist on child protection with Save the Children in Nairobi, in an email interview.

Save the Children attributes that progress to a range of policy efforts. Education, for example, is an essential area. Child labor specialists stress the importance of accessible, high-quality schools. 

Social protections are also important; these can include the promotion of decent jobs for adults as well as family access to health benefits and support. Another factor is the establishment of legal standards around child labor.

The last category, says Benjamin Smith, senior specialist for child labor at the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, has been key – especially as national governments organize around the issue of child labor and find ways to mobilize various ministries to move the needle. 

Child labor is a tough, complicated issue. It’s been of concern to the ILO since its founding in 1919, according to Mr. Smith. He says the recent reductions are good news, but should be taken with a grain of salt.

“It is not going fast enough,” he says.

One region where there remains much more work to be done, he adds, is Africa.

“In terms of both absolute numbers and in the prevalence rate, sub-Saharan Africa is a particular concern,” he says. “Africa is clearly where we need a breakthrough if we are going to achieve the elimination of child labor.”

Farming accounts for some 71% of child labor – globally, children also work in mines or warehouses and in commercial fishing. On paper, the majority of child laborers are boys, though the number of girls involved in domestic labor is likely underreported.

Children are forced into work as early as age 5, with cascading negative consequences throughout their lives, from lack of education to health issues. “If more efforts can be channeled on prevention rather than response, then this will push the work further,” says Ms. Marabi.

“The composite of a child who migrates with her family, waking up at predawn hours, working in the hot sun exposed to insect bites, using sharp tools, and having her education negatively affected, is somewhat of a typical one,” says Mr. Smith.

“There is no country ... exempt from the problem.”

shadow

5. Why more Hollywood action heroes sport gray hair

If Tinseltown thinks differently about age, does that mean other people will, too? A flurry of new offerings with seasoned stars raises questions about a changing societal view. 

Mark
Yana Blajeva
In September, Sylvester Stallone will reprise the titular role in “Rambo: Last Blood,” the latest installment from the franchise that started in 1982. Other upcoming sequels with original actors include “Terminator: Dark Fate” and a new “Ghostbusters” movie.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

As Americans live longer and more active lives, cinematic portrayals of those who are retirement age or nearing it are beginning to reflect that shift. 

Between 1996 and 2015, the average age of action stars was 40, according to movie data analyst Stephen Follows. But in 2015, the last year he tracked those figures, it spiked to 48. With the majority of baby boomers still in the workforce, it’s apt that legendary characters are heading back to work. September’s “Rambo: Last Blood” features Sylvester Stallone, November’s “Terminator: Dark Fate” has Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and next year’s “Picard” has Patrick Stewart reprising his role as a “Star Trek” captain on CBS. 

To be sure, Hollywood continues to traffic in stereotypes of older people. But cultural critics say that positive portrayals can help influence how seniors perceive their own potential. “Images on screen do affect us in our self-images and what we think we can’t do and should do,” says Tim Appelo, film critic for AARP The Magazine. “We can’t all be action heroes, but watching Liam Neeson and Tom Cruise and Helen Mirren do some heroics gives us the strength to do what we want to do in our own lives.” 

Collapse

Why more Hollywood action heroes sport gray hair

When Estelle Getty starred alongside Sylvester Stallone in “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot” (1992), the joke was that a senior could be a gun-toting hero. Nowadays, Mr. Stallone is not only older than “The Golden Girls” comedian was when she filmed that role, but he’s still playing an action hero – and not for laughs.

Mr. Stallone is among several veteran actors who are bringing iconic heroes out of retirement. In September’s “Rambo: Last Blood,” the titular hero rises from his front-porch rocking chair to fight invaders at his ranch. Similarly, trouble comes knocking for a grizzled humanoid cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who lives in a backwoods cabin in November’s “Terminator: Dark Fate.” And in the 2020 TV series “Picard,” a former “Star Trek” captain (Patrick Stewart) leaves his vineyard to reengage with intergalactic politics.

It would once have been unthinkable to greenlight action projects featuring septuagenarian actors in lead roles. But today, retirement age looks very different from what it did a few decades ago. As Americans live longer, healthier, and more active lives, on-screen portrayals of seniors are beginning to reflect that shift. To be sure, Hollywood continues to traffic in stereotypes of older people. But cultural critics say that positive portrayals can help mitigate societal fears about aging and also influence how seniors perceive their own potential.

“Images on screen do affect us in our self-images and what we think we can’t do and should do – what’s appropriate to our age,” says Tim Appelo, film critic for AARP The Magazine. “There’s a phrase from William Blake, the poet: ‘mind-forged manacles.’ People are troubled by manacles forged in their own minds. And I think that TV and movies helped to break those shackles of illusion. ... We can’t all be action heroes, but watching Liam Neeson and Tom Cruise and Helen Mirren do some heroics gives us the strength to do what we want to do in our own lives.”

Back to work, like boomers

At a time when the majority of baby boomers are still in the workforce, it’s apt that many legendary cinematic characters are heading back to work. Older boomers are staying in the workforce longer than previous generations. Since the turn of the millennium, global life expectancy has increased at the fastest rate since the 1960s. Consequently, concepts of retirement and longevity are evolving – even in Hollywood. It’s telling that the premise of “Cocoon,” a 1985 science fiction movie about how alien powers rejuvenate residents in a retirement home, now seems antiquated.

“One of the big jokes was now that they have encountered aliens they’re out dancing,” says Tim Gray, senior vice president for Variety. “If you said to somebody [today], ‘Hey, I know one of my neighbors is 70 years old and goes out dancing,’ people would say, ‘Yeah, OK, where’s the story here?’”

For actresses over age 40, it’s still a struggle to find lead roles in an industry predisposed toward ingénues. But in certain genres, that age no longer means what it once did. Between 1996 and 2015, the average age of action stars was 40, according to movie data analyst Stephen Follows. But in 2015, the last year he tracked those figures, it spiked to 48. Audiences are embracing action films featuring stars who are older than those averages, including Charlize Theron and Sandra Bullock – not to mention Daniel Craig, Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, Clint Eastwood, and Mr. Neeson. 

To that list, add Linda Hamilton. In “Terminator: Dark Fate,” the cool heroine battles robots with her bazooka. Indeed, the popularity of veteran actors is sometimes aided by an audience appetite for nostalgia. Cases in point: Mr. Cruise is back on the highway to the danger zone for “Top Gun 2.” Who you gonna call for another “Ghostbusters” sequel? Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver. Harrison Ford, who has already reprised his iconic roles in recent sequels to “Star Wars” and “Blade Runner,” is dusting off his fedora for a fifth “Indiana Jones” movie. 

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Linda Hamilton (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger, cast members in the upcoming film “Terminator: Dark Fate,” discuss the film during the Paramount Pictures presentation at CinemaCon 2019, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, in Las Vegas on April 4, 2019.

Reversing negative messages

Inevitably, news about these types of roles conjure up the same sort of jokes that follow the Rolling Stones when it tours. Messages of ageism can be subtly harmful, says Becca Levy, director of the social and behavioral sciences division at the Yale School of Public Health. 

“In our experimental research, we bring older people into the laboratory and we expose them on a computer screen to either positive or negative age stereotypes, and we found that when we activate negative stereotypes, it can lead to different kinds of outcomes including worse memory performance, worse balance, and slower walking,” says Professor Levy. “And then we found when we expose people to positive age stereotypes on a computer screen and we measure variables before and after they’ve been exposed to the age stereotypes, we do find a shift in performance.”

Stories on screen have a social and cultural pedagogic effect, agrees Sally Chivers, director of the Trent Centre for Aging & Society in Peterborough, Ontario. Too often, Hollywood associates age with decline, she says – especially movies about dementia, which stoke fears of aging by insinuating that this could happen to anyone. But screen stories can also have a positive influence. She points to how the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, has shaped how some seniors view late-life romance. Professor Chivers’ book “The Silvering Screen” chronicles how Hollywood has also gotten better at producing stories about the perspectives of older characters even if the stories, such as romantic comedies, are formulaic. 

“If those plots are going to be what dominate, why not have age be part of it rather than this kind of either grotesque horror story, like in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ [from 1962] or humor. Even the ‘Grumpy Old Men’ are just kind of a joke to move the plot along,” says Professor Chivers, referring to the 1993 comedy starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. “We’ve come a long way since then.” 

shadow

The Monitor's View

One reason not to be a cynic about Arab progress

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

With so many intractable conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, fewer nations seem to want to play an active part in solving the region’s issues. At least that’s the current assumption. Yet an unexpected coalition of nations formed in recent months to break this pessimism. This unlikely grouping helped set Sudan, a mainly Arabic-speaking country, on a path toward democratic rule.

Last week, Sudan swore in a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, for the first time in three decades. Not long after, the British-trained economist made a point of thanking a long list of “partners” that helped defuse a five-month political crisis, from Ethiopia to the United States to Saudi Arabia. While each of them has different interests in Sudan’s future, they came together with goodwill and defied the region’s malaise about progress. Sudan still needs the coalition’s help to make sure the military returns to its barracks and a stagnant economy is relieved of its immense foreign debt.

It has taken a crisis in Sudan to show that the region is worthy of international attention and that pessimism need not rule about the Middle East’s future.

Collapse

One reason not to be a cynic about Arab progress

With so many intractable conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, fewer nations seem to want to play an active part in solving the region’s issues. At least that’s the current assumption. Yet like a white swan appearing on a dark sea, an unexpected coalition of nations formed in recent months to break this pessimism. This unlikely grouping helped set Sudan, a mainly Arabic-speaking country, on a path toward democratic rule.

Last week, Sudan swore in a civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, for the first time in three decades. Not long after, the British-trained economist made a point of thanking a long list of “partners” who helped defuse a five-month political crisis in Sudan: Ethiopia, the United States, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Chad, the Gulf states, the European Union, and the African Union. While each of them has different interests in Sudan’s future, they came together with goodwill and defied the region’s malaise about progress.

If they shared a common interest, it was to prevent yet another Arab country from descending into chaos, like Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Yet they also helped achieve something better. Under an agreement signed Aug. 17 between civilian leaders and the military, Sudan will start a three-year transition to democracy, with the military holding on to most of its powers for about the first half.

The agreement is a partial victory for the masses of Sudanese people from all parts of society who protested in the streets beginning in December. In April, they forced the military to oust longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. Then in June, after one military faction massacred more than 100 protesters, the coalition of nations got to work and forced the two sides to compromise. A complex deal was struck to ease the country toward elected, civilian rule.

Sudan still needs the coalition’s help to make sure the military returns to its barracks and a stagnant economy is relieved of its immense foreign debt. The Arab world does not have many successful models of democracy. Its preferred type of governance remains stuck between Islamist forces and secular autocracies, either military or monarchy. In 2011, the Arab Spring tried to break this mold but failed. Now it has taken a crisis in Sudan to show the region is worthy of international attention and that pessimism need not rule about the Middle East’s future.

shadow

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Feeling nervous? God’s help is at hand.

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

It’s not uncommon to feel nervous and apprehensive before taking on some new challenge. But we don’t have to just cope with these feelings. Knowing that an all-knowing and all-powerful God is always with us can rid us of that feeling of butterflies fluttering in our stomach and set us up for success in a right endeavor.

Collapse

Feeling nervous? God’s help is at hand.

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

In the summer before my first year of college, whenever I thought about the upcoming semester – where I would be 700 miles from home and not knowing a single soul – I would feel excited, but also quite nervous. Call it cold feet and butterflies. “Can I handle the work?” “Will I succeed?”

Those questions probably aren’t foreign to anyone heading into uncharted waters, whether one is starting a new job, embarking on a major project, trying out for a new sport, or beginning some other unfamiliar adventure.

Yet in the many years since my college experience (which turned out to be challenging, but also wonderful), I have come to see something. While it is true that sometimes feeling uncomfortable about an endeavor is an indication that it’s not the right thing to be doing, the fact is that if we’ve been divinely led to a particular adventure, we can see it as an opportunity to gain confidence, strength, perspective, and skill, and to grow spiritually. In this way, those “butterfly” feelings may be an indicator that we can expect great things ahead!

For me, the key to overcoming a sense of nervousness has been to see that I am not alone, no matter what I have to do or where it takes me. Each time some intimidating task looms, there is a divine hand, an ever-present wisdom and intelligence, guiding me all the way.

From my study of Christian Science, I’ve found that to understand God as the one real all-seeing and all-knowing Mind frees me from feeling nervous. And most important, it allows me to be who I really am – the expression of that one divine Mind. How can I truly be alone, fumbling and fending for myself, if I understand more and more that the source of my ability and intelligence is Mind, and that Mind is expressing itself through me?

This spiritual viewpoint, kept at the forefront of my thought, has opened the way for progress many times as I’ve faced various demands. Not that everything is smooth sailing all the time, but I certainly approach fresh challenges with less fear and more love as my motive, since God is Love, as well as Mind, as the Bible teaches.

When I have remembered God, or Love, as the one infinitely good Mind, and have consistently acknowledged Love’s presence, care, and love for me, my work has flowed more easily and become a true blessing – a steppingstone, if you will, to feeling closer to God so that I can trust Him even more in other areas in my life.

I like to recall what the Bible records Moses saying when he received a major assignment. God told him, of all people, to go back to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery. Moses’ incredulous reply was “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

God reassured him: “I will certainly be with you.” Still, Moses came up with some pretty good excuses not to take this on: “O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither before nor since You have spoken to Your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

But God replied, “Who has made man’s mouth?... Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say” (Exodus 3:11, 12; 4:10-12, New King James Version).

Despite Moses’ initial misgivings, he went on to complete his great task by leaning on God, the one Mind, for guidance and spiritual strength.

If you are feeling butterflies about something (and who doesn’t now and then?), it could very well mean that you’re at the beginning of an experience of great good, with much spiritual growth, and have an opportunity to understand more clearly God’s ever-presence. God is calling you, preparing your thought, and equipping you to be blessed and to bless others around you.

We often get caught up in doubting that somehow we won’t measure up. That’s the butterflies talking. But when we embrace and accept the spiritual fact that God loves us – that He would never assign us anything we couldn’t handle – we will increasingly feel as though God is saying, “I’ve got your back! Lean on Me and know in your heart that I am the source of all ability, intelligence, creativity, and strength.” Then we find the mental freedom and joy that is our natural right as God’s expression – and we soar!

shadow

Viewfinder

You say ‘tomato,’ I say, ‘fire when ready.’

Alberto Saiz/AP
Revelers throw tomatoes at each other during the annual “Tomatina,” tomato fight fiesta, in the village of Buñol, near Valencia, Spain, Aug. 28, 2019. The party saw 145 tons of tomatoes offloaded from six trucks into crowds packing Buñol’s streets for the midday, hourlong battle.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( August 29th, 2019 )

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back tomorrow, when we explore the question that has been keeping so many of you up at night: What does a cusk eel chorus sound like? Yes, the sea has a soundscape, and we have the audio to prove it. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 28, 2019
Loading the player...

More issues

2019
August
28
Wednesday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.