Calif.'s Latest Anti-Smoking Drive Targets Those Behind the Wheel

In its ceaseless campaign to snuff out cigarette smoke, California has a new target: those driving young children.

The state leads the nation in smoking restrictions. Butts are banned in restaurants, bars and workplaces -- even on a growing number of beaches.

Now, some legislators want to spare children from secondhand smoke whenever they ride in vehicles, saying exposure to cigarettes in such a confined space poses serious health risks.

A bill proposing to fine motorists at least $25 if they get caught smoking in the company of children 6 or younger won approval from a state Senate committee a few days ago. No other state has such a rule.

The bill will move to the full legislature, where its fate is unclear. Some legislators are calling the proposed crackdown government meddling. The tobacco industry also opposes it. But the American Lung Association of California wants the measure passed.

Initially, motorists caught smoking with a child of any age would have been penalized, but the state Assembly narrowly rejected that notion last month. The bill has since been revised.

Motorists would be warned once before getting fined, and money collected from smoking scofflaws would be spent on programs to make the public more aware of the habit's risks to children.

Paul Knepprath, vice president of government relations for the lung association, said he expects the bill to provoke a fight in the legislature but believes it will prevail. "I think public health will win out," he said.

-- Rene Sanchez

Opening of Vt. Institute Gives Cheesemaking a Touch of Class

In a state that bills itself as "the Napa Valley of cheese," the University of Vermont last week launched the nation's first institute devoted to the advancement of handcrafted, or artisan, dairy products.

With $500,000 provided by the federal government, a private donor and a grant from the John Merck Fund, the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese will perform basic research on cheese production, offer educational programs to the public and offer technical assistance to dairy professionals in the state and beyond.

It will also award a Master Artisan Cheesemaker Certificate, which could take students from Vermont's approximately 40 cheese companies several years to earn.

"Vermonters have long been at the forefront of this industry," said institute co-director Catherine Donnelly, a University of Vermont professor. "These institutes exist throughout Europe and give a real advantage to artisan cheesemakers there. We want our companies to be able to compete."

Artisan cheeses include a range of specialty products, such as cheeses made with raw, or unpasteurized, milk. The market for gourmet cheeses is expected to grow to $2.9 billion by 2005, according to the Agriculture Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University.

Vermont's new institute will not be the only one of its kind for long. In Wisconsin, which produces more cheese products than any other state, the Dairy Business Innovation Center, which will focus on a range of artisan dairy products, is set to open in the coming weeks.

"Not to get into political wars, but I think even Wisconsin cheesemakers would say folks in Vermont were key to putting artisan cheese on the map," Donnelly said.

-- Jonathan Finer

For Neighbors of Nebraska Farms,

The Days of Swine Aren't Rosy

Residents of Boone and Nance counties about 100 miles northwest of Lincoln, Neb., think their neighbors really stink.

Those neighbors are thousands of hogs on farms run by Progressive Swine Technologies. The hogs stink so much that the state Court of Appeals ruled last week that the company must pay damages to 11 residents living within two miles of its hog farms who say the stench forces them to stay inside and prevents them from eating food from their gardens or hanging clothes out to dry. The appellate court ruling reversed a 2002 decision that the farms must reduce their smell but should not have to pay damages. A trial court will determine the amount of the damages.

Progressive Swine owner Jim Pillen, whose four local farms each house about 5,000 hogs, said odor is a natural part of the swine industry. He said he believes the lawsuit was filed by people with ulterior motives who oppose the industry in general.

"Am I saying hogs don't have an odor? No," he said. "But show me one industry that has no odor. If you're raising corn and soybeans in the Midwest, what else are you going to do with them except feed them to animals? This is part of the economy."

-- Kari Lydersen

Drought and Insect Infestation

Take Their Toll on a State Tree

Residents of New Mexico love pinons, their state tree. But bark beetles do, too.

Because of a massive infestation of bark beetles, exacerbated by drought, the trees are dying off by the millions. Some experts estimate that 80 to 85 percent of the state's pinons could be lost within the next two years. Already in parts of Santa Fe, Taos, Los Alamos and Sandoval counties there are few pinons left. In plots monitored as part of a forestry program at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the mortality rate for pinons more than 10 feet tall exceeds 90 percent.

"There are just too many trees for the amount of moisture available," said Shelley Nolde, wildland/urban interface specialist for Santa Fe's fire department. "So the trees are stressed, and they're more susceptible to bark beetles."

She said there are pesticides that can fight the beetles, "but you have to get up close and personal with the tree to spray it; it's not the type of thing you can spray over large areas from the air. And if you've ever seen a pinon tree, you know that's not easy to do -- they have multiple trunks."

Although the tree deaths are extreme, pinons are not in danger of disappearing from the area. When the population gets low enough, the bark beetles will die off, too, and a natural balance will assert itself.

"This is a very sad thing to see, but it's part of living with nature," Nolde said.

-- Kari Lydersen