Are smokeless cigarettes safer? E-cig explodes in smoker's mouth

Electronic cigarettes and cigars are billed as a safer way to get a nicotine high, but a Florida man learned just how dangerous they can be this week. One of the devices exploded in his mouth, ripping out part of his tongue and several teeth while badly burning his face.

"He is very, very lucky," Fire Chief Joseph Miller of the North Bay Fire Control District told The Times. The man, identified as Tom Holloway, 57, was taken to a local hospital for treatment Wednesday, then transported to an Alabama hospital that specializes in burns. He has since been released. "It could have been a lot worse," Miller added.

Emergency responders said the device that Holloway was holding in his mouth acted like "a bottle rocket." Holloway was in his home office at the time, and some carpet and chair cushions also burned.

Electronic cigarettes and cigars  -- commonly called e-cigarettes and e-cigars -- are all the rage even though their safety is hotly debated. They use a nicotine cartridge and a battery. The battery creates an electrical charge that releases the nicotine vapor. The user inhales that familiar shot of nicotine,  without the smoke.

Until now, controversy has largely centered on federal regulatory issues and whether consumers are being misled by a device that some say could actually be more toxic than regular cigarettes because of the secondary chemicals used. But this week's explosion will obviously raise more immediate safety questions.

As you might imagine, the incident -- and ensuing publicity -- isn't good P.R. for the burgeoning industry of smokeless cigarettes and cigars.

Thomas Kiklas, co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Assn. told The Times that he believes the device that Holloway used was not the commonly sold kind, but a specially modified device designed to give the user a turbo-charged blast of nicotine. (He likened it to the difference between a push lawn mower and a gasoline-charged lawnmower.) He said on his site that it is too soon to jump to any conclusion about possible product failure.

Miller, the Niceville, Fla.-based fire chief, said he'd never heard of the device before, but assumes that it was a one-time fluke. "When I heard 'electronic cigarette,' I said, 'What in the heck is that?' "

The injured man has since called to thank the emergency responders for their quick action. "He was very, very thankful."


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

File photo: An e-cigarette. Credit: Gerry Broome / Associated Press

Tennessee 'Don't Say Gay' bill clears a hurdle in state House

A bill that would ban teaching Tennessee kids about homosexuality before they reach the ninth grade was approved by a state House subcommittee Wednesday, reigniting an emotional debate in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

The bill, which would limit class discussions to "natural human reproduction science" in public schools, passed the House education subcommittee, which keeps it on track for consideration by the full House, according to reports in the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville Scene.

To supporters, the bill gives parents control over how and when to educate their children about what is still, to some, a sensitive topic.

"The basic right as an American is my right to life, my right to liberty and my right to the pursuit of happiness," Democratic state Rep. John DeBerry said, according to the Tennessean. "Within that includes being able to run my home, raise my children as I see fit and indoctrinate them as I see fit."

Wednesday's hearing attracted a large crowd, including many high school students involved in gay-straight alliance groups at Nashville high schools. Some students stood on a busy street with their mouths covered in purple tape.

Only one subcommittee member opposed the measure. "It looks to me like a solution looking for a problem," Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat, told the Tennessean.

The bill, authored by Republican lawmaker Stacey Campfield, passed the state Senate last year. Campfield prefers to call it a "Don't Teach Gay" bill, and has said it is necessary because homosexuality is more dangerous than heterosexuality.

Campfield recently incorrectly asserted on a a satellite radio talk show that the HIV epidemic began when a gay airline employee had sex with a monkey. His statements have earned him national attention and the ire of gay rights supporters both nationally and locally: A restaurant in his hometown of Knoxville recently refused to serve him.

Jeff Woods, a reporter at the Nashville Scene, noted that Wednesday's debate over the bill took a detour into the merits of the popular TV sitcom "Modern Family," which prominently features a gay couple.

A preacher told the committee that if the bill became law, kids might find out about gay people anyway if they tuned in to the show.

The subcommittee chair, Rep. Joey Hensley, said that he didn't think that "Modern Family" was an "appropriate" show for children.


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Empire State Building throws same-sex weddings on Valentine's Day

-- Richard Fausset in Atlanta

Photo: Opponents of a bill seeking to prohibit the teaching of gay issues to elementary and middle school students wear purple to a meeting of the House Education Subcommittee in Nashville on Wednesday. The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald advanced on a voice vote. Credit: Erik Schelzig/Associated Press

At Heart Attack Grill, diner's symptoms weren't fake


The Heart Attack Grill in downtown Las Vegas promises that its food will clog arteries, expand waistlines and lead to the loss of lovers. It offers a parody of a medical-based dining experience, with food servers called "nurses," diners called "patients" and the food itself called "prescriptions."

All told, perhaps it's small wonder that other patrons thought a man who appeared to be having a heart attack Saturday night was part of a stunt pulled by the restaurant. 

But no, the man really was in distress.

“It was no joke,” said restaurant owner Jon Basso, according to the Associated Press. Although Basso promotes himself as "Dr. Jon," employees called for real medical help instead, the AP reported. A video on YouTube showed the man being wheeled out on a stretcher by medical responders.

One server, aka "nurse," told Fox5 in Las Vegas that the man -- who reportedly had been eating a triple bypass burger -- began having chest pains, sweating and shaking. Calls to the restaurant went unanswered Wednesday.

Authorities in Las Vegas have not disclosed the man's name or condition, the AP reported, but Basso told the local Fox affiliate that the man was recovering from what was described only as a "medical episode."

News of the event was circulating Wednesday through social media venues and news sites -- but not on the Heart Attack Grill's website. It wasn't responding. 

One tweet read: "PR stunt for the Heart Attack Grill? No, he actually needs ambulance"

Another: "A customer has a heart attack at The Heart Attack Grill. The rest writes itself."

The restaurant, whose slogan is "taste worth dying for," is no stranger to criticism. It's come under fire over the years for its menu offerings. Among them is the 8,000-calorie "quadruple bypass" burger, with four half-pound patties, eight slices of cheese and a lard-doused bun. The restaurant's  "flatline fries" are not cooked in oil, but instead lard. 

The Heart Attack Grill offers free meals to people weighing more than 350 pounds. 


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Photo: The Heart Attack Grill in downtown Las Vegas. Credit: Julie Jacobson / Associated Press

Gift for dying husband: Mom induces labor so he can hold child


He held his newborn baby for less than an hour before he died.

Mark Aulger, 52, had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and months of chemotherapy had left his lungs badly damaged -- so damaged that by mid-January he only had a few days left to live. Doctors suggested that Aulger's wife, who was eight months' pregnant and due Jan. 29, induce labor. 

“Mark said, 'I'd like to see the baby,' " Diane Aulger, 31, told the Associated Press.

 She gave birth to Savannah Aulger on Jan. 18.

Hospital staff arranged for the Aulgers to share a large labor and delivery room. “Our beds were side by side,” Diane Aulger said.

After the baby was born, Diane Aulger passed the infant to her husband. "He got to be the first one to hold her, [and he] held her for 45 minutes," Diane Aulger told WFAA.

But during the next few days, she said, her husband was so tired he could only hold the baby for minutes at a time. Three days after Savannah was born, Mark Aulger slipped into a coma. Two days later, he died.

“I brought her home the night before he fell into the coma,” Diane Aulger told the Associated Press. “It was just me and Savannah when he passed away.”

Savannah is the couple's third child together, and Diane has two other children from another relationship. The family lives in The Colony, about 25 miles north of Dallas.

“We're living day-to-day as if Dad's still here,” she said. “We know Dad is here with us.”


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-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston

Photo: In this Jan. 18 photo, Mark Aulger, 52, holds newborn daughter Savannah for the first time, surrounded by his wife, Diane Aulger, and their other children. Credit: Diane Aulger / Associated Press

First lady fights obesity in Iowa, but overweight kids are few

Michelle Obama dances in Iowa on Let's Move tour

First Lady Michelle Obama on Thursday kicked off a national "Let's Move!" anniversary tour, part of her effort to fight childhood obesity, by heading to Iowa. But obese children are comparatively scarce in that Heartland state.

Better she had begun in, say, Mississippi, where there are 10% more obese children than in Iowa -- and where parents also tend to be much heavier.

Obama's visit to Iowa -- where she appeared at the Wells Fargo Arena and cheered on thousands of children in exercises and heart-pumping dances -- coincides with a push by that state to become the nation's healthiest by 2016, reported the Des Moines Register.

"You are the model" for other states, the news site quoted the first lady as saying.

Though the actual steps state officials are taking weren't spelled out, they must be doing something right. The state ranks 46th among the 50 states with an 11.2% childhood obesity rate. This is according to the 2011 report "F as in Fat" from the nonprofit, Washington-based Trust for America's Health.

The July report said 12 states had adult obesity rates above 30%, compared with one state in 2007. 

Mississippi ranked first for obese adults, with a rate of 34.4%, and first for obese children, with 21.9%.

Other states besides Iowa are making an effort to combat obesity. Just last month, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta released ads that were intended to help curb obesity rates -- but they also ticked off some  Georgians. 

The ads featured obese children talking about the toll of obesity. Proponents called them "in your face." But critics said they were reminiscent of graphic, disturbing anti-smoking ads and "might actually make people feel worse," as The Times reported in January.

Georgia, according to the Trust for America's Health report, ranked second nationally for childhood obesity with a rate of 21.3%.  It came in 17th for adult obesity.

The national Let's Move! tour will mark two years since the first lady launched her drive to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. Obama visits Iowa, Arkansas and Texas on Thursday; she has a Texas visit and two stops in Florida on Friday; and then she makes another stop in Florida on Saturday before winding things up. 

That's three stops for a state that reportedly ranks 13th nationwide for childhood obesity. Just sayin' ...


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-- Amy Hubbard

Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama dances "the Interlude" after speaking at a Let's Move! rally with Iowa students at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. Credit: Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press

Hold the bread? CDC warns of excessive sodium in U.S. diets

About nine of every 10 Americans eat more salt than is recommended, and Public Enemy No. 1 is bread -- not junk food, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.

Salt, or sodium chloride, is a sneaky ingredient, ending up in many food products that don’t sport the distinctive tang of a potato chip. But just because the sodium intake per slice of bread or roll may be lower than a serving of potato chips doesn't mean that the salt isn’t piling up. Americans love to chomp down on bread -- and they frequently indulge.

“Too much sodium raises blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden said in a prepared statement. “These diseases kill more than 800,000 Americans each year and contribute an estimated $273 billion in health care costs.”

According to the CDC, the average person consumes about 3,300 milligrams of sodium per day, well above the current daily guideline of about 2,300 milligrams, or about a teaspoon of salt. People 51 and older are urged to eat no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium; the same ceiling applies to people with high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic kidney disease, and to African Americans.

The salt poured at the table is rarely the culprit in sending Americans past the threshold, because eaters can easily control intake in that setting. It is the hidden salt found in many processed foods, or in meals eaten outside the home, that help push Americans over the limits.

Just 10 types of food are responsible for more than 40% of people’s sodium intake, the CDC noted. Leading the pack are bread and rolls, followed by luncheon meat such as deli ham or turkey.

Pizza, poultry, soups, cheeseburgers and other sandwiches, cheese, pasta dishes and meat dishes such as meatloaf round out the list; snacks such as potato chips, pretzels and popcorn are at the bottom of the 10 worst list, according to the federal agency.

The amount of sodium in each food can vary depending on the style or brand. A slice of white bread can range from 80 to 230 milligrams of sodium. One ounce of potato chips ranges from 50 to 200 milligrams of sodium.


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Photo: Nearly all Americans consume more sodium than they should, according to a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bread and sandwich meats are two leading sources of sodium in U.S. diets; chips are less of a problem than you might think. Credit: Wilfredo Lee, J Pat Carter/Associated Press


Komen exec who backed Planned Parenthood cutoff quits cancer group

Karen Handel, the vice president of public policy at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has quit her post at the breast cancer charity; her move comes on the heels of the group's reversal of its decision to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.

In her letter of resignation, Handel, a conservative Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Georgia governor in 2010, said she had supported ending the funding of about $700,000. The charity ultimately decided to continue the grants after the cutoff sparked a nationwide furor fueled by social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

Handel's resignation was first reported by the Associated Press.

Komen, known for raising money through events such as races and walks, said last week that it had adopted criteria excluding Planned Parenthood from future grants for breast-cancer screenings and education programs because a conservative congressman had announced an investigation of the organization, which provides abortions as part of its services.

Komen’s action sparked a political outcry, with Democrats and liberals saying the move was part of a broad campaign against Planned Parenthood for its position on abortions. Handel was singled out for criticism because of her conservative political views.

Handel denied politics played a role in the initial funding cutoff.

“Neither the decision nor the changes themselves were based on anyone’s political beliefs or ideology,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “Rather, both were based on Komen’s mission and how to better serve women, as well as a realization of the need to distance Komen from controversy. I believe that Komen, like any other nonprofit organization, has the right and the responsibility to set criteria and highest standards for how and to whom it grants.”

Handel called the uproar a “challenging and deeply unsettling situation for all involved in the fight against breast cancer.

“However, Komen’s decision to change its granting strategy and exit the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood and its grants was fully vetted by every appropriate level within the organization,” she wrote. “I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterizations of the strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it. I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve. However, the decision to update our granting model was made before I joined Komen, and the controversy related to Planned Parenthood has long been a concern to the organization.”

Nancy B. Brinker, Komen founder and chief executive, released this statement:

"Today I accepted the resignation of Karen Handel, who has served as Senior Vice President for Policy since April 2011. I have known Karen for many years, and we both share a common commitment to our organization's lifelong mission, which must always remain our sole focus. I wish her the best in future endeavors."


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2 Florida cruise ships riddled with norovirus. Anyone surprised?

Norwalk virus
Noroviruses like cruise ships. Current and recent passengers on two Princess Cruise Lines ships can now attest to this personally.

More than 200 people on the Ruby Princess and the Crown Princess, both bound for South Florida, were reporting gastrointestinal illnesses, company officials told Associated Press on Saturday. Those officials blamed a norovirus.

Noroviruses are no cause for hysteria, but they’re far from pleasant, causing vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. They can also cause a low fever, headaches and muscle aches, but for folks cooped up in tiny cabins, aches are the least of their troubles.

The outbreaks are hardly the first for the cruise ship industry. And the passengers can’t say the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t try to warn them. 

“Facts About Noroviruses on Cruise Ships” lays it out: “Noroviruses are found in the stool or vomit of infected people and on infected surfaces that have been touched by ill people. Outbreaks occur more often where there are more people in a small area, such as nursing homes, restaurants, catered events, and cruise ships.”

But cruise ships. Why is it always cruise ships that make the news? The CDC explains that, for starters,  illnesses on cruise ships are actually tracked, allowing outbreaks to be identified and reported more quickly than they might be on land. As for the risk of illness, all that coming and going of passengers can increase exposure to others. And then, yes, there's the whole close-quarters factor.

The CDC even offers a “vessel sanitation program” to help the cruise ship industry prevent and control such illnesses.

Meanwhile, passengers waiting to embark on their own journey on the two ships were delayed by a few hours. Company officials apparently had some disinfecting to do.


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Komen backlash: Public turns fury on vice president Karen Handel

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: An electron micrograph of a norovirus, previously known as Norwalk-like virus. Credit: Public Health Image Library

Komen backlash: Public turns fury on vice president Karen Handel

Karen_Handel_300The harsh social media spotlight cast on Susan G. Komen for the Cure is now shifting to Karen Handel, the organization's senior vice president for public policy and, some suspect, the architect behind the decision that has led to the worst public relations disaster in the organization's history.

Social media activists are calling out Handel by name and demanding that she be fired. "I won't trust anything SGK says until they fire Karen Handel," said one Facebook posting. The drumbeat on Twitter was growing as well, with versions of "Fire Karen Handel" making the rounds.

So who is Karen Handel?

Handel made history in 2006 when she became the first Republican and only the second woman to be elected as secretary of state in Georgia. She resigned that post in 2010 to launch a campaign to become her party's nominee for governor. Despite getting a high-profile endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Handel did not win the bid.

Such a life in the public eye makes for a public record, and critics are now using what they say are past  public statements from Handel to bolster their suspicions that she was the driving force behind Komen's decision to slash funding to Planned Parenthood.

Internet archivists say they have unearthed archival pages of the blog that Handel reportedly wrote -- the blog has since been taken offline -- while she was running for governor. In one posting, she reportedly promises to "be a pro-life governor," adding that "since I am pro-life, I do not support the mission of Planned Parenthood."

And then there is this screen shot making the online rounds. It claims to show Karen Handel's Twitter account from earlier in the week, which suggests that she -- or perhaps someone with access to her Twitter account -- re-tweeted a comment slamming Planned Parenthood. That comment is no longer visible in Handel's Twitter feed.

The Komen foundation did not return a phone call or email asking to discuss Handel and what role, if any, she played in the controversial decision or the Tweet. And she has yet to comment publicly about the recent uproar.

Komen has long been under pressure by conservatives to cut ties with Planned Parenthood because it provides a variety of reproductive health care services, including abortions. Critics say Komen engineered the perfect out in 2011 when it revised its internal rules to bar the organization from funding another organization under an investigative cloud. The Atlantic notes that while Komen provides funding to hundreds of organizations, the new rule affected only one: Planned Parenthood.

The move turned out to be a public relations disaster for Komen and created a financial windfall for Planned Parenthood.

This morning, Komen announced that it was retreating from its position. That move triggered a new round of controversy, this time from anti-abortion activists who now accuse Komen of caving in to pro-choice pressure.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that Handel had any extraordinary role in the decision to pull Planned Parenthood's funding.

Komen's founder and chief executive, Nancy Brinker, said in an interview with MSNBC this week that Handel did not play a significant role in the policy change, according to the Associated Press.

And Gen Wilson, of Georgia Right To Life, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that her organization targeted Handel during her run to become Georgia's governor precisely because she failed to do enough to block Planned Parenthood. Handel helped manage federal and state grants to Planned Parenthood while sitting as a Fulton County commissioner, another position she held in Georgia.

"If Ms. Handel has been involved in this decision, we’d love to see some credible documentation of that. Unfortunately we have seen none," Wilson told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the inquiry that helped trigger the controversy shows no end in sight.

U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, a Republican and anti-abortion advocate, started his own inquiry last September to determine whether Planned Parenthood uses any taxpayer funding to perform abortions. Planned Parenthood says it does not. Stearns says he needs proof and suggested in a statement that Planned Parenthood only has itself to blame for his inquiry. Such an inquiry is not a formal congressional investigation.

"Repeated cases of Planned Parenthood ignoring state and local reporting requirements, many involving minors, and allegations of financial abuse led to this investigation -- the first ever oversight conducted on this group," according to the statement released by his office. "We are still working with Planned Parenthood on getting the records and documents for the investigation, and I’m interested in holding a hearing depending on what the investigation discovers."


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

File photo: Karen Handel waves to supporters during her unsuccessful big to become the Republican nominee for the governor's office in Georgia in 2010. Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press

Komen learns power of social media: Facebook, Twitter fueled fury

Facebook and Twitter, take a bow. The head of Planned Parenthood on Friday credited the two social media platforms with forcing Susan G. Komen for the Cure to reverse course on its plan to withhold funding earmarked for breast health screenings.

Facebook and Twitter were the first to catch wind of the controversy -- and that led the mainstream media to sit up and take notice, said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The social media giants then led the online world in delivering a furious barrage of criticism over a move that many saw as trying to politicize women's health.

"It's been incredible; we're still sifting through the numbers," Richards said in a media conference call Friday morning. In addition to picking up $3 million in donations in just three days -- directly related to the awareness raised by social media -- Planned Parenthood's Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers increased by thousands upon thousands. Facebook alone picked up more than 10,000 "likes."

By contrast, Komen -- an organization accustomed to accumulating accolades and messages of support on its Facebook page -- was drowning in thousands upon thousands of critical comments.

"I absolutely believe the exposure on Facebook and Twitter really drove a lot of coverage by mainstream media," Richards said. "I've never seen anything catch fire [like this.]"

The uproar eventually led to Friday's dramatic conclusion (of a sorts), when Komen apologized and said it would change the internal guidelines that led the organization to strip funding in the first place.

Richards said that people used social media to tell stories about how they, or someone they loved, had used Planned Parenthood for basic health services. And they expressed outrage that politics may have played a role in the decision. (Many believe Komen was under pressure from conservatives and "political bullies" trying to undermine Planned Parenthood because it offers a variety of reproductive health services, including abortion. Komen denies politics had anything to do with the move.)

Social media attention also helped create new relationships, Richards noted, saying that she had been contacted by a representative of Livestrong, the nonprofit charity started by cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

The immediacy of the social media reaction struck a nerve, she said, calling it an "incredible expression" of the nation's compassion for, and commitment to, women's health. It was "the authenticity of the response that carried the day," she said.

All that said, Komen still wins in both Facebook and Twitter's most common measurements of success: At last check, Komen's Facebook page had 545,365 "likes" compared to 235,796 "likes" for Planned Parenthood. And Komen's Facebook page also had many "shares" and comments supporting Komen's decision to strip funding.

Over on Twitter, Komen's official account has 39,086 followers at last check, while Planned Parenthood has 41,295. 


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Peter Foley / Bloomberg


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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