Minnesota asks Big Tobacco firms: Where’s the money? – Star Tribune

Several cigarette brands, including Salem and Winston, have stopped paying money owed to the state of Minnesota under the historic 1998 court settlement with Big Tobacco.

The shortfalls, estimated at $15 million a year, come as funding for the state’s free quit-smoking assistance program is set to expire next year.

Without new funds, Minnesota would be the only state that does not provide a free tobacco cessation program — even as teen tobacco use is rising and a historic drop in adult tobacco use appears to be slowing down.

The state has sued the tobacco firms to recapture the funds, and bills were introduced in the Legislature last week to dedicate any resulting money to anti-tobacco efforts. Those efforts include the free Quitplan program, now operated by ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit established using some money from the original $6.5 billion tobacco lawsuit settlement.

Still, Minnesota pulled in $154 million in 2018 in tobacco settlement payments from brands that have been paying, as well as $648 million in taxes on tobacco products. That revenue goes into the state’s general fund, with little spent on tobacco control.

Altogether, Minnesota spends $17 million annually on tobacco control, with $12 million of that coming from ClearWay, according to the Minneapolis-based nonprofit. By comparison, a 2014 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta said that Minnesota should be spending $54 million annually.

“This was the largest and most significant lawsuit in the state’s history, and for none of that money to be earmarked for the purposes that the lawsuit was serving is an unforgivable shame,” said Doug Blanke, director of the Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul. “That is one of the great tragedies of this experience.”

Since the landmark legal settlement, Minnesota’s adult smoking rate has dropped 38 percent, reflecting the impact of tobacco cessation programs, higher cigarette taxes and indoor smoking bans.

But recent trends paint a changing picture. A recent ClearWay survey found that the decline in adult smoking rates leveled off between 2014 and 2018. The rates went from 14.4 percent to 13.8 percent, a drop that is not statistically significant.

Among young Minnesotans, tobacco use has increased for the first time in 17 years, fueled by a 50 percent jump in e-cigarette use by teens over the past three years, according to a Minnesota Department of Health survey.

The CDC released a “Progress Erased” report last week showing that 4.9 million middle school and high school students were users of tobacco products in 2018. One in 5 teens used e-cigarettes, according to the CDC, which highlighted prevention efforts in Minnesota and encouraged other states to adopt them.

Twenty-three cities in Minnesota have raised the age for purchasing tobacco products to 21, said Laura Oliven, tobacco control manager for the Health Department.

Oliven participated in a CDC national news conference to release the report, describing Minnesota’s efforts to reduce e-cigarette usage among teens by educating teachers and doctors about the harm that nicotine can cause in developing brains.

“The nicotine changes that early brain chemistry,” she said in an interview. “It kind of locks in that association between nicotine and pleasure and creates a lifetime susceptibility to addiction. And that’s really scary.”

Cigarette use has plummeted 70 percent among teenagers in Minnesota since 2000 — evidence that prevention efforts do work, Oliven said. “I don’t want to say we are winning the war, but a smoke-free generation is within reach. With e-cigarettes, it’s threatening to undermine our success.”

More than 185,000 Minnesotans have used ClearWay’s Quitplan service, which provides online, texting and e-mail support as well some free tobacco cessation medications to those who want to quit smoking.

The program has been financed with funds set aside as part of the 1998 tobacco settlement, but ClearWay’s mandate was limited to 25 years, and Quitplan will stop providing services in March 2020. “We provide most of the money in the state for tobacco cessation,” said Laura Smith, public affairs manager. “It is especially critical as we go away that the state has more money for this work.”

Bills were introduced in both chambers of the Legislature that would dedicate some tobacco settlement money to tobacco efforts.

“It’s time for all Big Tobacco brands selling in Minnesota to pay up and honor this settlement. And it’s time for the state to dedicate some of that tobacco money to preventing youth from ever starting this deadly addiction,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, lead author of the Senate bill.

In March 2018, then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court against the tobacco companies R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and ITG Brands to recoup payments that have not been made since 2015.

Reynolds sold four of its cigarette brands to ITG to resolve antitrust concerns after Reynolds acquired another large tobacco manufacturer, Lorillard Inc., in 2015, and the four brands’ payments to Minnesota stopped that year.

Reynolds and ITG have since sued each other over who bears responsibility for the payments.

“Our position is that ITG purchased the brands and should be making the payments,” said Reynolds spokesman Michael Shannon.

ITG spokesman Mark Smith said: “We are currently paying Minnesota all legally required fees on the products we are selling in the state.”

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How do big farmers hope to pick the next crop? Carefully — but with robots – NOLA.com

Human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils.

One February afternoon, they work about an acre apart on a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers collecting produce the way people have for centuries – and a robot that engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.

The future of agricultural work has arrived here in Florida, promising to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food, or so says the team behind Harv, a nickname for the latest model from automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.

Harv is on the cutting edge of a national push to automate the way we gather goods that bruise and squish, a challenge that has long flummoxed engineers.

Designing a robot with a gentle touch is among the biggest technical obstacles to automating the American farm. Reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are at risk without it, growers say, because of a dwindling pool of workers.

“The labor force keeps shrinking,” said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. “If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person.”

The problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised about $9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll’s and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.

Wishnatzki, who created Harv with former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, one of the minds behind the television hit “BattleBots,” has invested $3 million of his own money.

The electronic picker is still pretty clumsy.

During a test run last year, Harv gathered 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition.

But Harv doesn’t need a visa or sleep or sick days. The machine looks like a horizontally rolling semitruck.

Peek underneath and see 16 smaller steel robots scooping up strawberries with spinning, claw-like fingers, guided by camera eyes and flashing lights.

Growers say it is getting harder to hire enough people to harvest crops before they rot. Fewer seasonal laborers are coming from Mexico, the biggest supplier of U.S. farmworkers. Fewer Americans want to bend over all day in a field, farmers say, even when offered higher wages, free housing and recruitment bonuses.

The number of agricultural employees in the United States is expected to stay flat over the next seven years, according to the latest projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As “productivity-enhancing technologies” mature in the realm of mechanization, farms will require fewer people, even as demand for crops grow, the government researchers wrote.

Manufacturing underwent a similar evolution. U.S. factories have increased output over the past two decades with a smaller workforce, thanks to machines that improve efficiency.

One Harv is programmed to do the work of 30 people. The machine hovers over a dozen rows of plants at the same time, picking five strawberries every second and covering 8 acres a day.

That potential is increasingly attractive to growers, who say the Trump administration’s tighter immigration policies are squeezing off the supply of seasonal workers, as well as undocumented labor.

About half of the country’s 850,000 farmworkers are not in the United States legally, according to 2016 data from the Department of Labor, the most recent available.

Agricultural analysts say the labor shortage is already forcing up wages.

From 2014 to 2018, the average pay for farmworkers rose faster than employees in the broader economy, jumping from $11.29 to $13.25, according to numbers from the Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture economists at Arizona State University last year estimated that if farmers lost their undocumented workforce entirely, wages would have to rise by 50 percent to replace them – and that would crank up produce prices by another 40 percent.

Then there are other risingcosts.

Starting in 2025, all farms in California – the nation’s largest fresh-food producer – must pay their employees overtime after eight hours a day instead of 10.

“Automation is the long-term solution, given the reluctance of domestic workers to do these jobs,” said Tim Richards, the Morrison chair of agribusiness in the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.

Wishnatzki said he lost about $1 million due to spoilage last year. He said he pays experienced pickers about $25 an hour.

Harv would diminish the need for field labor, Wishnatzki said, but it would create new jobs, too. Wish Farms, his family business, would train pickers to become technicians.

“We need people to clean, sanitize and repair the machines,” he said.

Some workers view that plan with anxiety and skepticism.

“I see the robot and think, ‘Maybe we’re not going to have jobs anymore,’ ” said Antonio Vengas, 48, one of the about 600 employees on the farm with Harv.

Vengas moved to Florida 15 years ago from the Mexican state of Oaxaca and makes about $25 an hour. About 75 percent of his co-workers are Mexicans on seasonal work visas.

They all make good money, he said. They’re motivated.

“People can pick strawberries without hurting them,” he said. “They know which ones are too little or rotten. Machines can’t do that.”

Labor groups also doubt that robots are prepared for the job.

“A machine cannot harvest delicate table grapes, strawberries or tree fruit without destroying the perfect presentation demanded by consumers and the retail food industry,” said Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director for the United Farm Workers of America, which represents about 20,000 farmworkers across the country.

Unions don’t oppose technological advances, though, Kashkooli added.

“Robotics can play a role in making the job less backbreaking and play a role in helping people earn more money,” he said.

Out West, engineers at Washington State University are working with local farmers to test an apple-picking machine that has 12 mechanical arms.

It drives down orchard rows, snapping pictures of trees. A computer brain scans the images and finds the fruit. The arms grab and lower apples onto a conveyor belt.

Expect to see this technology on the market in the next three years, said Manoj Karkee, associate professor at the school’s Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems.

Farmers who struggle to hire workers wanted it “yesterday,” he said.

“We all know we need to go in this direction,” Karkee said. “The last advancement in apple picking was the invention of the ladder.”

The robot rarely hurts the produce. But as of today, one robotic apple-pickercosts at least $300,000 – too much for most budgets.

On the day Harv is put to the test, farmers and researchers arrive in three buses to Wishnatzki’s farm. They’ve come from Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and across the United States. Curiosity hangs in the air like the hawks circling overhead.

Blaine Staples, a strawberry grower from Alberta, steps through the dirt toward the machine, which hisses as it claws up fruit. Dozens of people around him crouch to the ground. The machine’s arms go to work amid exclamations of awe and disbelief from onlookers.

“This is pretty much the new industrial revolution,” Staples said.

His Canadian farm is tiny compared with Wishnatzki’s 600 acres. But he could see himself renting Harv for a season – as long as it’s comparable to his current labor costs.

Under Harv’s proposedbusiness model, farmers would pay only for the fruit the machine picks at the same rate they pay seasonal work crews.

A few strawberry rows over, Doug Carrigan, a North Carolina farmer, stands in the group with his eyes locked on Harv.

“It doesn’t care if it’s a Sunday or a holiday,” Carrigan said. “The machine will work regardless.”

He pays his workers between $10 and $14 hourly. They’re mostly local folks.

“A lot of Americans have become lazy,” Carrigan said. “They want a paycheck. They don’t want a job.”

Any time you can automate work without sacrificing quality, “that’s a win,” he said.

Behind the crowd of farmers, a team of engineers watch the spectacle on a flat-screen TV in a white trailer, their makeshift command center. Cameras in Harv give them a close-up.

Lights flash. The 16 smaller robots spin, clawing up strawberries. Engineers compare them to duck feet, paddling furiously.

“The best view in the house,” said Alex Figueroa, 24, director of machine vision.

Everything looks to be running smoothly. Nobody’s stress-eating the oatmeal raisin cookies they ordered.

“No errors!” Figueroa pleads aloud.

“Knock on wood,” another engineer replies.

In another section of the field, far from the commotion, the pickers work like they have always worked.

It’s 80 degrees outside, but they wear long sleeves, pants and scarves below their eyes to block the sun. They bend over, pluck the strawberries and slip them into plastic cases.

Then, they sprint through the plant rows to a supervisor, who scans in each package. They are paid by the package. Slowing down means losing money.

Parked nearby is an old school bus, which shuttles them free to work. Most of the pickers live in housing Wishnatzki provides.

Santiago Velasco, 65, has worked here for 35 years and has done practically every job: picking, digging, irrigating.

Harv is a newcomer that doesn’t concern him.

“I don’t think it’ll work, because the people know how to pick,” he said, “and they go faster.”

His prediction held up on demo day.

The robot found more than half the strawberries on each plant, but the fruit this season was bigger than anticipated. A bunch tumbled from Harv’s claws – red and juicy and now gone.

Engineers aren’t sure how many – they’ve got to review hours of video. They can’t be sure Harv hit this year’s target. But they’re confident the machine can get it right next year.

– – –

Story by Danielle Paquette, The Washington Post

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Return to sender: High court to hear undeliverable mail case – KOMO News

by JESSICA GRESKO, Associated Press

Mitch Hungerpiller of Birmingham, Ala., who invented a computerized system to automate the processing of returned mail, visits the Supreme Court in Washington, on Feb. 14, 2019, where his decade-long fight with the post office over patent infringement will be heard. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitch Hungerpiller thought he had a first-class solution for mail that gets returned as undeliverable, a common problem for businesses that send lots of letters.

But the process he helped develop and built his small Alabama technology company around has resulted in a more than decadelong fight with the U.S. Postal Service, which says his solution shouldn’t have been patentable. The David vs. Goliath dispute has now arrived at the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, the justices will hear Hungerpiller’s case, which involves parsing the meaning of a 2011 patent law.

“All I want is a fair shake,” said Hungerpiller, who lives in Birmingham and is a father of three.

Hungerpiller, 56, started thinking seriously about returned mail in 1999 when he was doing computer consulting work. While visiting clients he kept seeing huge trays of returned mail. He read that every year, billions pieces of mail are returned as undeliverable, costing companies and the Postal Service time and money.

So he decided to try to solve the problem. He developed a system that uses barcodes, scanning equipment and computer databases to process returned mail almost entirely automatically. His clients, from financial services companies to marketing companies, generally direct their returned mail to Hungerpiller’s company, Return Mail Inc., for processing. Clients can get information about whether the mail was actually correctly addressed and whether there’s a more current address.

Hungerpiller says developing Return Mail’s system took several years. As part of the process, the company applied for a patent. In 2004, right before Thanksgiving, Hungerpiller got a call with good news. The company would be issued U.S. Patent No. 6,826,548.

“Oh I was so thankful. Best Thanksgiving of my life,” he said, describing the phone call as “just a wow moment.”

To celebrate he bought decorative copies of the patent for company leaders. His copy, a plaque about the size of a piece of paper, hangs in his office next to a painting of his late father.

Even early on, the Postal Service expressed interest in Return Mail’s invention, Hungerpiller said. By 2006, the government and Return Mail were talking about licensing options and a formal pilot program. Partnering with the Postal Service, Hungerpiller said, would have “changed my life.” But the Postal Service ultimately developed its own, similar system for processing returned and undeliverable mail, announcing its launch in 2006.

“I was crushed. I got a dagger in my back,” Hungerpiller said.

And his business suffered.

“Bottom line is that we had to lay off employees,” Hungerpiller said, adding that it “suffocated the business.”

The Postal Service soon went further. It tried to get Return Mail’s patent invalidated, but failed. Return Mail sued the Postal Service, arguing that the government should pay for using Return Mail’s invention without permission.

A spokesman for the Postal Service declined to comment on the case because it is ongoing.

Just as Hungerpiller thought his company might be gaining the upper hand, the Postal Service switched tactics, successfully using a 2011 patent law overhaul law to invalidate Return Mail’s patent.

Now, at the Supreme Court, Return Mail’s lawyers are arguing that the Postal Service can’t use that law, the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, to challenge Return Mail’s patent. The law says that a “person who is not the owner of a patent,” can file a patent challenge using the law. The Postal Service doesn’t count as a “person,” Return Mail’s lawyers say. The government disagrees. The Supreme Court will decide who is right.

Hungerpiller said he’s pleased the Supreme Court wants to at least hear his case. He said what he has been through to get to this point hasn’t made him lose faith in his government. Most days he wears an American flag pin, something he has done since 9/11. He calls himself a “proud American.”

“This is just a process,” he said. “I honestly believe that one day I’ll get justice.”

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