Month: February 2014


Kicking a Habit



In a recently released episode of the popular Netflix television drama, House of Cards, one of the main characters is the wife of the Vice President of the United States, Claire.  In one scene, Claire is shown in her home smoking an electronic cigarette.  In prior episodes, the Vice President, Francis, and his wife Claire are shown sharing a nightly cigarette together, reflecting on the day and sharing a moment of solitude contrasting the very hectic lives they lead.  In this scene featuring the electronic cigarette, she jests with Francis about how she wishes it were the real thing, and then Francis shows her the stash of real cigarettes he never threw out as intended.  They light up a conventional cigarette and puff away together.  Some habits die hard.

An e-cigarette is a nifty little gadget; especially for those that have been trying to kick a cigarette habit for years.  It is a battery powered device designed to mimic the experience of smoking an actual cigarette.  Some formulas of the e-cigarette release a nicotine formula, others do not.  And they are blue.

The American Association of Public Health Physicians (AAPHP) says that individuals unwilling to quit tobacco smoking or unable to quit with medical advice and pharmaceutical methods should consider products such as electronic cigarettes for long term use instead of smoking.

In today’s Sunday edition of The New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise writes about the public health effects of e-cigarettes.  She says that a researcher at Boston University argues that e-cigarettes could be the beginning of the end of smoking in America (Travernise, 2014).  This sounds like good news.  However, the professor of medicine and this researcher’s mentor is convinced that e-cigarettes may actually erase the hard-fought progress to reduce the number of people smoking over the last fifty years.  How could this be?

Researchers are saying that not many people who are smoking conventional cigarettes are actually switching to electronic cigarettes.  It seems that they are smoking both.  In addition, researchers are contemplating that by smoking electronic cigarettes, smokers may actually be prolonging the habit, by offering a dose of nicotine at times when getting one from a traditional cigarette is inconvenient or illegal (Travernise, 2014). 

Some researchers are saying what is even more damaging is that these clever e-cigs are making smoking look “cool” again.  Questions arise concerning the images that our youth are receiving.  Will the advertisements and images of e-cigarettes in the media attract our adolescents for the novelty of the idea and then lead them into an addiction that they otherwise might have avoided.  It seems as though e-cigarettes are not the perfect answer to a very long problem of quitting smoking, they do offer a better alternative for those that want to reduce their intake of tar, but are unable to completely kick their nicotine habit.

Travernise, S. (2014, February 23).  Hot Debate Over E-Cigarettes as Path to Tobacco, or From It. The New York Times, pp. 1A, 18A.




The United States: Leading the Way in Incarceration

There’s a group of people working for The Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. A friend of mine is working with them. He’s a George Washington educated Attorney, but really he’s a social worker. Currently, he advocates for a population of Americans relegated to surely one of the lowest tiers in our society. I’m speaking of our inmates and former inmates of the U.S. Criminal Justice System.

This marginalized and often dismissed population is, upon entering the system, typically stripped of their own name to be replaced with a six digit number. The Sentencing Project is an organization that addresses, advocates and educates for justice reform in our U.S. Criminal Justice system. Few Americans are aware that America is currently the world’s leader in incarceration, retaining 2.2 million individuals; a greater population than the City of Houston, Texas. Of that 2.2 million, one in three young African-American men are mired in the criminal justice system.

Many issues surround reform in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. States have laws on the books that prohibit former felons from voting. Issues exist pertaining to smoothing the transition of inmates back into society after incarceration. These issues are referred to as felony disenfranchisement. Although some businesses support the employment of former felons, it is difficult to obtain employment with a record: felony disenfranchisement.

The “war on drugs” and sentencing policies that followed national awareness efforts resulted in growth in incarceration for drug offenses. At the Federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980. Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.

Advocacy groups like The Sentencing Project work actively to reform the federal mandatory penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. These reforms intend to make penalties more equitable and fair to the nature of the charge.

On Tuesday, February 11, 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. encouraged states to repeal any laws that prohibit former inmates from voting. Decisions like this would definitively restore the right to vote to millions of people. According to The Sentencing Project, African Americans make up more than one third of the estimated 5.8 million people who are currently not allowed to vote. However, this urging from General Holder is simply a cry for help. Mr. Holder really has no authority or power to create change by himself. This declaration brings attention to felony disenfranchisement from the Justice Department and, in essence, President Obama, to move forward to eliminate laws that he says disproportionately decline minorities from their polling place. Mr. Holder said “it is unwise, it is unjust, and it is not in keeping with our democratic values,” Mr. Holder said at a civil rights conference at Georgetown University. These laws deserve to be not only reconsidered, but repealed.”

There is an interesting conversation here about justice and restoration. When has justice been served? Is it when one completes their prison sentence? Do crimes exist so severe that rehabilitation is not possible and therefore one must lose all place, meaning and voice in our society? And what constitutes one to lose their place, meaning and voice in society? It seems our society has decided that a misdemeanor charge is not severe enough to cause one to lose their voice, but in some states a felony conviction is indeed.

And 77 cents for You, And a Dollar for Me…

During President Obama’s recent State of the Union message, the President discussed plans to further reduce the national deficit, create opportunities for manufacturing, close loopholes in the tax code, and further energy production. In typical State of the Union fashion, he proposed many grandiose policies with enthusiastic delivery for the kind consideration of Congress and the American populous.

Typically I am easily wooed with a broad national platform for change. This year however, I noticed an emotional response from within my spirit after hearing a small portion of the speech where the President addressed wages. One highly memorable statistic most likely reverberated throughout the female consciousness in living rooms from San Francisco to Jacksonville. I’d like to personally congratulate the government employee at the Census Bureau that was responsible for providing this factual treasure to the speechwriters of the State of the Union address. He or she is now a national treasure among American women.

It seems that most articles and headlines we see in the media these days speak to the need for an increase in our national minimum wage. Most of us can all agree that our fast food and sanitation workers are clearly overworked and underpaid and could use a boost, but we are too pacified with the status quo to justify this increase in Uncle Sam’s bottom line. It seems that we have been missing this information in our national discourse about discrimination towards women as it relates to their pay.

The moment I referred to earlier in the SOTU address that caused me to audibly say “amen”, was when the President of the United States whole hog went to bat for the working woman. He began by saying that, “you know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.” An embarrassment? Did I just hear the President say that this policy involving inequality in gender pay was an embarrassment? I think so. He then went on to say that “women deserve equal pay for equal work,” and that she “deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job.” Was this President not of my gender and personally not able to relate to the experience of giving birth to live young going to bat for me? Could he possibly understand and empathize with me, and my beloved 50% of the American workforce?

And then to add to my joy, he referenced one of my favorite contemporary television programs, Mad Men, which boldly and dramatically depicts social oppression and discrimination in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He suggested that America might do away with policies that belong in a Mad Men episode. It was an appropriate and needed comparison.

Some have already begun to carry this torch declaring there clearly is a wage gap. They have argued that differences in things labeled “life choices” of men and women have made it challenging to make simple comparisons. An example of a “life choice” might be a woman staying home for a period of time to care for her children. And I’m guessing that “life choices” consequently are not rewarded in the pay stubs of working women.

President Obama is said to have used a figure from the Census Bureau that makes the disparity between the sexes appear the greatest, in order to make the best cause for the American woman. Another statistic from The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the gap is actually only 19 cents, not 23, when looking at wages earned week to week. Some say the gap is smaller, only 14 cents if you compare wages on an hourly basis (Kessler, 2014).

It is just plain disappointing to me that in 2014 there is a need for women to advocate for their own wages in the workplace. Why are we even talking about this in 2014? Doesn’t every human being have a mother? Don’t we all understand the great sacrifice, labor and effort our mothers make to bring up our children? And how are we valuing these individuals who give life to the planet? We give them a smaller paycheck for their “life choices,” fearful that if we employ them, we might not get as much out of them as we would a man. We have female leadership in the highest levels of leadership and oversight in our government, education and economic sectors. American women are powerfully serving in our executive, judicial and legislative branches.

Our U.S. government has enacted legislation to address employment discrimination. Efforts such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment protect women’s rights to equal access to education and employment opportunities. Despite these efforts, this conversation is still a part of our national discourse (Mendel, 2012).

Even very recent legislation in 2009, known as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, allows salary discrimination cases to be heard in courts (Mendel, 2012). Although this should make me feel relief as a woman, I don’t feel relief. I feel exhausted, thinking about how in the world a woman faced with going into litigation over her salary would ever have the fortitude to do that considering all her other obligations and responsibilities. Other protections provided by affirmative action legislation require schools and employers to encourage participation by groups that might be underrepresented. Also, a National Equal Pay Enforcement Task Force was created to bring awareness by educating the public on wage inequality and how to enforce wage inequality laws.

Despite all this, discrimination is still occurring in the workplace. Employers can definitely pay unequal wages for equal work, fill different positions with a different kind of worker, and limit availability of jobs through discriminatory practices. If government policies force firms to pay equal wages, an organization may simply choose to not hire women. Wouldn’t that be a great way to reward our female population for the great endeavor of carrying our unborn children and bringing them into life on the planet? Next time you are at the water cooler, consider whether or not your organization is advocating for equality for the working woman and if not, why?

Kessler, G. (2014). Fact Checking the 2014 State of the Union Address. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Mendel, L. (2012). The earnings puzzle: why do women earn less than men? Review of business research, 12(4), 107.