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Florida Governor DeSantis Targets Social Media Platforms In Newly Signed Bill

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is targeting social media platforms ina newly signed bill that’s meant to monitor how social media platforms moderate online content. 

The legislation is one of the largest steps made by a Republican governor ever since allegations of online censorship were thrown at tech giants Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Tech industry leaders, however, claim that the legislation is unconstitutional and is setting everyone up for a massive court battle. 

On Monday, DeSantis claimed that a “council of censors in Silicon Valley are to blame for shutting down the debate over Covid-19 lockdowns and the origins of the coronavirus.”

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“I would say those lockdowns have ruined millions of people’s lives all around this country. Wouldn’t it have been good to have a full debate on that in our public square? But that was not what Silicon Valley wanted to do.”

The bill that he signed specifically “prohibits tech platforms from suspending or banning political candidates in the state, with possible fines of $250,000 per day if the de-platformed candidate is seeking statewide office and $25,000 per day if the candidate is running for a non-statewide office,” according to CNN.

The legislation would also give Florida residents the power to sue tech companies for de-platforming. Similar bills have been in the works in states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Utah. 

US lawmakers have been proposing significant changed to the federal law in its relation to the legal leeway that tech platforms have when it comes to online censorship. The federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, has been under fire by Democrats who argue that the platform’s benefit from a law that was created before the technology even existed. 

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Tech industry leaders have repeatedly denied blocking or removing content solely based on political ideology. Many tech platforms began flagging posts that discussed the Covid-19 pandemic, but were spreading harmful misinformation. 

After multiple Republicans and former president Donald Trump continued to spread falsehoods and misinformation about the 2020 election and the sanctity of our Democracy, many political leaders began getting deplatformed for the harmful information they were spewing. 

Florida’s legislation will “force tech platforms to step back from moderating their sites due to the threat of litigation by any internet user, from foreign extremists to disgruntled internet trolls,” said the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group.

“Florida taxpayers will also end up paying their share in the cost of enforcing new regulations, and for the inevitable legal challenges that will come along with the legislature’s effort to adopt a law with glaring constitutional challenges,” CCIA president Matt Schruers, wrote in an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel.

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution — backstopped by Section 230 — makes it abundantly clear that states have no power to compel private companies to host speech, especially from politicians,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a co-author of Section 230, in a statement regarding the signing on the Florida bill.

Facebook Phone App

Facebook’s Ban On Donald Trump Will Continue To Hold 

Facebook’s oversight board ruled this Wednesday that its suspension of former President Donald Trump was justified following his role in the January 6th insurrection attack on the Capitol building. 

The panel claimed that this means the company doesn’t need to reinstate Trump’s access to Facebook and Instagram, however, they also mentioned that the company was wrong to impose an indefinite ban, and the platform has six months to either restore Trump’s account, make his suspension permanent, or suspend him for a specific period of time. 

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Facebook joined a multitude of other social media platforms that banned Trump in January after a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol Building. Trump used his accounts to “incite violent insurrection” as ruled by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a handful of other platforms. 

“In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.”

Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg claimed that “Facebook will now determine an action that is clear and proportionate following the ruling. Until then, Trump’s accounts will remain suspended.”

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The board’s ruling could also set a potential precedent for how social media platforms treat posts from political leaders. The decision to ban Trump has led to a major debate over the power these tech companies have, but also the power that our political leaders have when it comes to the things they say and the influence they have; especially when it comes to violent attacks on our government. 

Many have argued that Facebook’s ban on Trump has been long overdue, as his posts have often started conversations that led to multiple violations of the platform’s hate speech policies, however, because of his political power, those violations were rarely regulated. 

Many researchers also emphasized the fact that Trump’s constant efforts to undermine the 2020 election and constant baseless claims against our democracy and Biden’s win created a social media environment fueled by violent political rage. 

The former president, however, has previously teased that regardless of what the platforms decide, he won;t be returning to them, and will potentially start his own social media platform to communicate with his supporters; essentially a personal blog. 

Switzerland Becomes Newest Nation To Ban Face Coverings In Public 

Switzerland has officially voted to approve a ban on full facial coverings in nearly all public spaces. The facial coverings include items like a niqab or burqa, and the policy is not at all in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic or masks that have to do with health and safety protection. 

The vote means that facial coverings will be banned in all publicly accessible places including public offices, transportation, restaurants, shops, and even on the streets. 51% of voters supported the controversial proposal according to the official results published by the federal government. 

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The only exceptions include places of worship and other sacred sites. According to the text of the proposal which was published by the Swiss federal government, “face coverings will also be allowed if worn for health and safety reasons, because of the weather and in situations where it is considered a ‘local custom’ to do so, such as at carnivals. There will be no additional exceptions, for example for tourists.”

The proposal was initially brought about by several right wing groups in the country including the Swiss People’s Party. While the proposal didn’t mention Islam specifically, the media has widely been referring to it as a “burqa ban” for it’s blatant disregard for religious individuals who view facial coverings as a sign of religious freedom. 

Many Swiss religious organizations, human rights/civic groups, and even members of the federal government have criticized the proposal for its attack on the religious freedoms of a very specific group of people who barely make up a full percentage of the population. The fact that the government has gone out of their way to ostracize such a miniscule portion of the Swiss population has many human rights groups calling out the authorities for racism and sexism. 

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The Swiss Council of Religions represents all major religious communities in Switzerland and condemned this proposal at the end of last year, emphasizing that “the human right to religious freedom also protects religious practices such as dress codes.” 

The Swiss Federal Council and the Swiss Parliament, both of which serve as the country’s federal government, also publicly rejected the initiative and advised people to vote against it. The two government bodies have also temporarily tabled a counter-proposal to the ban which states that people would only have to remove facial coverings to show their faces to police or other officials if it’s necessary for identification purposes. 

Andreal Tunger-Zanetti is a researcher at the University of Licerne who has been studying Islam in Switzerland since 2007. He has recently taken to social media to discuss his new book which reveals how “the number of people wearing a niqab is limited to three dozen at most” in Switzerland. Amnesty International claimed the result of the vote was “anti-Muslim.” 

“Swiss voters have once again approved an initiative that discriminates against one religious community in particular, needlessly fueling division and fear.”

Several other European countries have also banned, or partially banned, facial coverings in similar policies that have been regarded as discriminatory and an attack on the religious freedoms of Muslim individuals. France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands all have bans in place currently.

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Facebook News Ban In Australia Blocks Pages For Fire Services And Charities

Facebook made the sudden decision to block people from sharing the news in Australia, which has led to a multitude of government organization and service group pages to be completely removed from the social media platform.

Plastic Bags

New York Plastic Bag Ban Goes Into Full Effect This Week

New York’s plastic bag ban will go into full effect this Sunday (3/1) and store-owners throughout all five boroughs are preparing themselves by buying paper bags in bulk, and implementing new marketing strategies to encourage customers to bring their own bags. A lot of establishments throughout the state of New York have already begun transitioning out plastic bags from their businesses, however, for others it’s a bit of a scramble. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation last year on Earth Day as a means of reducing litter throughout the state, especially in New York City, but also to combat climate change in general by protecting wildlife from eating said litter, and reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions that are directly linked to plastic bag production, distribution, and disposal. 

As previously stated, the ban goes into full effect on March 1st and states that all New Yorkers will either have to bring their own reusable bags when going grocery shopping, or pay a five cent fee per paper bag they need; the fee does not apply to individuals who use SNAP of WIC. Certain bags are exempt from the ban, such as garbage or garment bags, or any kind of bag that’s used to wrap perishable foods. 

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“It’s self-explanatory. It’s the right thing for the environment, and we really care. Our clientele also appreciate the fact that we care about the environment. Yes, it’s going to be a little bit of transition for many stores — being a shortage of bags or whatever it may be — but we wanted to be proactive on it,”  said Carlos Alfara, director of produce for all Union Market stores in NYC.

Union Market has also created their own informational campaign that they’re calling “BYOBag” as a means of informing all NYC residents on the specifics of the new law. Part of their campaign also instructs all sales representatives and cashiers to talk to customers about the new policy, as well as offering a 10 cent discount to every customer who brings their own bag.

For Union Market, however, as a chain making this transition isn’t as financially impactful as it would be for smaller, independently owned businesses who are paying nearly three times the amount for paper bags, hence the fees. Store owners are encouraged to also keep all cardboard boxes they recieve in case customers want to use those for groceries as well. At the end of the day, customers will get used to the change, and the planet will surely thank New Yorkers in the long run.

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New York has now become the third state in America to fully ban plastic bags statewide; California and Hawaii being the other two. According to Riverkeeper, a water advocacy nonprofit, New Yorkers use more than 23 billion single-use plastic bags every year, and the average life cycle of each bag is about 15 minutes long, before being improperly disposed of. Riverkeeper has also been outspoken about their discontent with this specific ban, stating that it’s simply not enough, especially when compared to the massive amounts of single-use plastic that New Yorkers go through in general annually. 

Plastic containers used for take out throughout the hundreds of thousands of places to eat in New York contributes to some of the most plastic waste for the state. Additionally, critics of the ban claim that while it is a step in the right direction, the amount of fossil fuels required to transport containers and paper bags is just as much as it would be for regular plastic bags. 

“They’re [plastic bags] cheap, convenient, waterproof, strong enough to hold groceries but thin and light enough to make and transport using scant energy, water or other resources. Though they’re called single-use, most people reuse them, typically as trash can liners. When governments ban them, consumers buy thicker substitutes with a bigger carbon footprint,” wrote John Tierney in The Wall Street Journal.

The Department of Sanitation for New York City will be scattered throughout the five boroughs this Friday handing out reusable bags as preparation for the change. While it may not be the biggest accomplishment in terms of combating climate change, it’s this type of systematic action that we need worldwide if we want a shot at saving our dying planet and all its inhabitants. 

Olympics

Russia Has Been Banned From The Olympics Following Anti-Doping Scandal

Russia has officially been banned from all major international sporting competitions for the next four years over non-compliance violations made apparent by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). This ban means that Russia is no longer allowed to compete in major sporting events coming up such as the World Cup, and more notably the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

The ban’s initial case review was in response to Russian Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov exposing Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) for dozens of falsified drug reports/cover-ups. Rodchenkov was the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory before he took on the “whistle-blower” title, exposing the lab for using a systematic doping program with false reports which benefited over 1,000 athletes between 2011 and 2015, according to CNN.

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Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov holds a press conference in Moscow

“Finally, Russia’s many doping and obstruction sins will now get some of the punishment they richly deserve. For far too long, Russia has weaponized doping fraud and state-sponsored criminal activity as a tool of foreign policy. When doping conspiracies become a crime under the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act, cheaters will be in U.S. prisons and clean athletes will be better protected,” said Rodchenkov via his lawyer Jim Walden, in a statement sent to CNN.

The Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act has been adopted in the U.S. in 2018 after the initial whistle-blower comments were made. The act itself criminalizes international doping fraud conspiracies, such as the one that has now ignited a full on Russian ban from international sporting events. The announcement of the ban gives RUSADA 21 days to either accept the ban or take the matter to court, more specifically the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The CAS is an institution “independent of any sports organization which facilitate the settlement of sports-related disputes through mediation by means of procedural rules adapted to the specific needs of the sports world.” In simpler terms, it’s sports court.

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President of the Russian Olympic Committee

Russia is expected to announce its decision regarding the ban as soon as possible, but it’s expected that they will take the matter to court out of fairness to all of Russia’s athletes who legitimately are clean and didn’t need to cheat the system to get ahead. The ban itself, however, wouldn’t actually ban any legit clean athletes; it would just mean that they have to compete as neutral and not under the Russian flag. 

The harsh punishment is being dealt by the WADA due to massive inconsistencies in data that the WADA received in January 2019. The data itself didn’t line up with reports from a Moscow lab, where Rodchenkov worked, and showed how RUSADA wasn’t abiding by the official anti-doping policies of the WADA. 

“Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order and rejoin the global anti-doping community for the good of its athletes and of the integrity of sport, but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial. As a result, the WADA ExCo has responded in the strongest possible terms, while protecting the rights of Russian athletes that can prove that they were not involved and did not benefit from these fraudulent acts,” said WADA President Sir Craig Reedie in a statement.

Hong Kong Protest

Hong Kong Protests Escalate As 1,000 Citizens Detained at University

The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have been ongoing for several months now and show no signs of slowing anytime soon, and are in fact escalating in intensity as a Hong Kong university was transformed into a battlefield between police and demonstrators, which ended with hundreds of young people jailed. Roughly a dozen protestors remain inside the school after heavily armed police officers surrounded the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, arresting many protestors who eventually surrendered to the authorities. Some students were able to escape without being captured by police by rappelling from a bridge to be rescued by motorbike drivers, while others unsuccessfully attempted to use a sewage pipe to escape. 

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The protests began as a response to proposed legislation to make it easier to extradite Hong Kong residents to China which was feared to impact Hong Kong’s independence and political freedoms. While the legislation in question has since been withdrawn, the aim of the protests has expanded to demand a stronger democracy in Hong Kong, further independence from China, and greater police accountability. The police have escalated their attempts to quell the protestors, using live ammunition on multiple occasions. These actions have only emboldened protesters, who have used bows and arrows and homemade weapons such as molotov cocktails in their ongoing battles with the police. At PolyU, police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets against protestors, who retaliated with violence. As the battle at the university concluded, protestors were searched by police and those who were older than 18 were arrested. According to Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, around 200 of the protestors were minors.

The recent events at PolyU resulted in the greatest number of arrests in a single day since the protests began several months ago, and many protesters received serious charges such as rioting and possession of offensive weapons

The dozen protestors who remain, many of whom are high school and university students, have said that they will neither leave the university nor surrender to police, in essence waiting for officers to enter the university and arrest them. Except for the few remaining protesters, the campus has been totally deserted, with debris littered throughout, and unused petrol bombs and pro-democracy grafitti were found on the campus. Roughly 80 people were treated for injuries at the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, and around 200 people were sent to other hospitals. Protesters have set fire to bridges connecting the university to a nearby train station and have destroyed other property as well. The recent events at PolyU resulted in the greatest number of arrests in a single day since the protests began several months ago, and many protesters received serious charges such as rioting and possession of offensive weapons, which carries the threat of serious prison time, leading to reluctance on the part of protesters to surrender to police.

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Last week, protestors clashed with the police at another university, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Over 3,900 Molotov Cocktails were seized at this university, and Kwok Ka-chuen, a spokesman for the police, described the university as a “manufacturing base” for these weapons. At the same time as this drama unfolded at these Hong Kong universities, a Hong Kong court overturned a ban on face masks instituted by Beijing in an attempt to curb the tremendously disruptive protests. The Hong Kong High Court found that this ban violated the constitution of the Hong Kong territory, which is called the Basic Law. The Congress has taken the unusual step of criticizing the court’s decision, saying that the finding “seriously weakened the lawful governing power” of Hong Kong’s government. While this would be an extreme step, the National People’s Congress has the authority to change the Basic Law, meaning they could institute changes that would make the face mask ban legal, potentially having broader implications for civil liberties in the territory generally. 

Twitter

Twitter to Ban All Political Ads

As social media rapidly replaces traditional journalistic forms of disseminating information, regulators have been slow to catch up with the new form of communication, as the appropriate legal boundaries on free speech on social media platforms remain an open question. Recently, Facebook has drawn criticism for allowing demonstrably false political advertisements to run on its platform, and the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, defended the decision to do so by citing free speech concerns. In an apparent response to Zuckerberg’s decision, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all political ads from around the world would be banned on Twitter, neatly avoiding the problem of politicians spreading disinformation through sponsored posts. Though Dorsey didn’t mention Zuckerberg or Facebook by name, it’s pretty clear that the company’s decision was made in the context of its rival’s position of allowing politicians to lie using advertisements, and it effectively functions as a commentary on Facebook’s policy.

Already, politicians have taken advantage of Facebook’s almost-nonexistent restrictions on paid political speech by running advertisements that contain falsehoods. The Trump campaign, for instance, ran an ad on Facebook falsely accusing rival Joe Biden of “[offering] Ukraine $1 billion to fire the prosecutor investigating a company affiliated with his son.” In response, the Biden campaign asked Facebook to remove the ad from its website, citing a lack of evidence supporting that claim, and Facebook declined to do so, reiterating its policy and defending it by arguing that removing political advertisements constitutes censorship. Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading Democrats in the race for the presidential nomination, ran an ad falsely suggesting Mark Zuckerberg endorsed Donald Trump in order to draw attention to Facebook’s political ad policy and point out how easily it can be abused. The Trump campaign has already spent millions of dollars on Facebook ads containing disinformation, including video ads that have been rejected by CNN and MSNBC for containing falsehoods, which nevertheless have been seen by millions of people.

“A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.” — Jack Dorsey

Recently, Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress with the intent of discussing his crypto-currency service, Libra, but instead found himself being grilled by lawmakers over Facebook’s stance on misinformation. One exchange which grabbed headlines recently involved freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who questioned Zuckerberg about the boundaries of the company’s restrictions on ads, and posed a hypothetical question: under Facebook’s policy, would she be allowed to run ads in Republican districts claiming that her Republican opponents had endorsed the Green New Deal? Zuckerberg replied that he didn’t know, but that she probably would be allowed to do so. Facebook doesn’t run ads for political campaigns through independent fact-checkers except in rare circumstances, so in all likelihood, Ocasio-Cortez would be permitted to run such an ad if she so chose.

Recently, Zuckerberg revealed that political ads make up only 0.5% of the company’s revenue, suggesting that banning all political ads on the site would have little impact on Facebook’s bottom line. Nonetheless, Facebook remains steadfast in its position, even after receiving significant controversy from the media, Congress, and the general public alike. Zuckerberg also recently drew criticism for having lunch with Republican politicians and conservative commentators, a decision that he defended by stressing the importance of getting along with people from different political stripes. In an apparent rebuke of Zuckerberg’s take on political speech, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey opposed the idea that allowing political ads to run indiscriminately is necessary to avoid censorship and ensure free speech, saying “A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimized and targeted political messages on people. We believe this decision should not be compromised by money.” This difference in opinion is at the core of the argument about free speech on social media platforms, and may very well one day manifest in the form of regulations about using advertising to spread misinformation on social media platforms, like the ones that already exist for other forms of media.

Girl Vaping

Health Scares Spell Trouble for Vaping Industry

Recently, a string of vaping-related hospitalizations made headlines and led to growing concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes marketed as healthier alternatives to cigarettes and other tobacco products. In the aftermath of this news, a number of states have moved to ban flavored vaping products, and the federal government even contemplated the idea of banning all flavors of vapor except tobacco nationwide. This sudden spike in concern has led to problems for the vaping industry, as blame is being placed squarely on the manufacturers of nicotine-containing products for the public health epidemic, and as the growing popularity of vaping among teenagers and young people threatens to undo the work of several decades of public campaigns aimed at curbing nicotine addiction.

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Juul, a brand which has become synonymous with vaping as it controls roughly 70% of the e-cigarette market, recently saw a change of leadership as it replaced its CEO with a former tobacco executive. A sudden change in leadership is never a good sign for a company, particularly one as large as Juul, and this news comes amidst other troubling developments for the company. Recently, the F.D.A. claimed that Juul broke the law by implying that e-cigarettes were safer than traditional cigarettes despite the lack of scientific evidence concerning the long-term health effects of using the products. Even more disconcertingly, the F.D.A found that Juul was marketing their products to teenagers in high schools as part of a campaign ostensibly targeted at reducing tobacco use by young people. Juul has said that it intends on fully cooperating with the F.D.A.’s regulations, and has announced it will not fight a proposed ban on flavored nicotine cartridges. Next year, e-cigarettes are scheduled to be banned in San Francisco, and Juul is considering whether or not they should abandon a ballot initiative to overturn the ban.

In order to stay on the market in the United States, Juul and other similar companies have to be able to prove that their products promote public health more than they harm it, which is growing increasingly difficult as the news reports of vaping-related hospitalizations and an epidemic of nicotine addiction in young people. While initially envisioned as a tool to help people quit smoking, vaping has instead become a fashionable trend, and many who are addicted to nicotine have no history of smoking cigarettes. The rise in popularity of e-cigarettes has been explosive, and while F.D.A. regulations concerning the sale of nicotine products have long been in effect, regulatory bodies have yet to catch up with the specific public health problems that e-cigarettes in particular pose. 

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Health professionals across the country are in virtual consensus in advising against the use of e-cigarettes, except as replacements for cigarettes as smoking cessation devices. Even then, there are nicotine delivery systems, such as chewing gum and patches, that are likely safer than vaping as they do not involve any inhalation of chemicals. The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, said that e-cigarettes should be clinically tested to determine whether they are effective as smoking cessation tools, and if they are they should only be available by prescription, which is the same standard to which other potentially dangerous drugs are held.

While recent develops certainly don’t bode well for the e-cigarette industry, it’s difficult to make any concrete predictions about the fate of affected companies. Famously, the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars lobbying against the notion that cigarettes cause cancer and other health problems, and were very successful in doing so for several years. Vaping has become so widespread that its popularity perhaps even eclipses that of the tobacco products that preceded it, and as a result, the industry has a lot of money to spend on resisting regulatory efforts. However, the government has fought Big Tobacco before, pioneering widespread public health campaigns in an attempt to stop tobacco use, and as such has plenty of relevant experience to apply to fighting Juul and similar companies. Meanwhile, a meaningful segment of an entire generation of young people who otherwise would not have been exposed to nicotine are addicted to vaping, and only time will tell how they will be able to get their nicotine fix in the years to come.