Raise smoking age to 21, save lives and money

Here’s an interesting debate that I would love to see played out in Florida.

In their desire to save lives and improve health, some communities elsewhere have raised to 21 the minimum age for anyone to buy tobacco. It’s led to a reduction in teenage smoking, although some folks worry that it’s another case of the Nanny State run amok.

Tobacco is one of those slippery slopes that can be tricky to navigate for liberals and conservatives alike.

Conservatives want to let folks smoke if they wish — provided we don’t have to pay for their almost-inevitable medical bills. And liberals want to protect us from ourselves, second-hand smoke and other people’s health care costs, and so what if you lose a bit of personal freedom to do something stupid.

Imagine if tobacco had just been created in 2014 and people were about to begin smoking. Today’s scientists would have soon detected the poisonous effects and called for a ban on tobacco, and most Americans would readily agree to bar a product that, as they say, kills you when used legally.

But the cow is out of the barn on that issue, and about 19.3 percent of adult Floridians today use tobacco, according to worldlifeexpectancy.com, which has a state-by-state comparison.

Kentucky is the weediest of all states, with 29 percent smokers, while Utah is a mere 11.8 percent.

Of course, Utah has issues of its own, what with its attitudes toward social issues. We now know that the beard is officially dead among hipsters; Brigham Young University is considering a rule change that would allow its students to wear beards.

Beards, but not mustaches, have been banned on campus since the 1970s lest people think BYU was one of those radical hippie college campuses where students protested against war and in favor of equal rights for women and minorities and other craziness.

There are many good reasons to raise the age to 21 for people to buy cigarettes. It’s a legitimate health issue. Remember the wave of teen drunkenness that swept states when they lowered the drinking age to 18, only to raise it back to 21? Many young people aren’t any better equipped to handle cigarettes than they handle alcohol.

It would force communities to debate health issues and focus on a behavior that costs society many billions of dollars each year. Figure out the cost of a pack-a-day habit from age 18 to age 55, for example, and you will be amazed how much more wealth a nonsmoker enjoys than smoker. A pack was $7.13 today at my local Circle K.

Even if communities don’t care about health, they should care about the dollars and cents of smoking. In the Greater Pensacola area alone (Escambia and Santa Rosa counties), there are more than 98,000 smokers. The cost to employers from those employed smokers exceeds $490 million in the two counties each year, according to Partnership for a Healthy Community, which is leading a tobacco-cessation effort.

That’s a lot of money going up in smoke.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Cheer up, Florida, other states have problems, too

On a chilly Florida day, there’s nothing like catching up on the last few issues of “Government Executive,” which bills itself as “the premier website for federal managers and executives.”

It’s not as dry as you think, especially in its “State and Local” section. And it’s a morale-booster for those of us worn down by Florida’s national reputation for dumb people doing dumb things.

Here’s the latest from Pennsylvania, where four workers in the state attorney general’s office have been fired and 11 others suspended without pay for involvement in the email exchanges of pornography.

Yes, that’s the state ATTORNEY GENERAL’s office.

What don’t these guys get? Work is supposed to be a porn-free zone, and don’t tell me all you guys were on the job doing “research” into the porn industry.

Yet they’re hardly alone: A state Supreme Court justice and a member of Pennsylvania’s cabinet already have resigned as a result of this scandal.

See, you’re already feeling better about Florida.

Also, our current brushes with cold weather are trifles compared with stuff happening elsewhere, Government Executive tells us.

In Portland, Ore., local government crews spent nine hours putting chains on buses because a major snowstorm was expected. Hardly any snow arrived, but the chains on the buses dinged up the roadways.

They should have hired the city manager of Marquette, Mich., who was featured a few days earlier for his city’s ability to plow snow. Up to 3.5 feet of snow fell one day recently, yet the city had 100 miles of streets clean and passable within four hours.

See, there is good news out there, and I exaggerate when I mock this publication. In fact, it’s a very good source of even-handed reporting on issues that are important to many governments. Florida leaders probably could find some solutions for their communities’ problems by reading “Government Executive.”

Still, there’s always a chuckle to be had somewhere. Like the article about the 3,323-foot tunnel being built under a lake near Dallas. The tunnel will carry up to 120 million gallons of sewage per day. Now that’s a Texas-sized sewerage system.

And while Florida’s governor won’t even let us say if we want the Affordable Health Care Act, people in Idaho had a different problem. Their state allowed them the choice to sign up — and 76,000 people did, an unusually high percentage.

Yet Idaho couldn’t get its own exchange up and running, so the Idaho residents had to make do with the federal system that had such a horrible rollout last fall.

At least Gov. Rick Scott has spared us that indignity which, ahem, involved some less than “premier” federal managers and executives.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

3 Ps to give you a new ride

The pickup truck isn’t what it used to be. Trucks used to be used for work, but now eight out of 10 trucks fly past with beds empty, their liner unsullied by dirt except maybe from errands once a year. Otherwise, the typical truck bed is saying, “Hey, look at me, I do nothing!”

Dogs already went that way.

“Working dogs” in the South earned their keep by hunting animals, guarding property and biting nosy Yankees. Today’s dogs, however, sit inside in climate-controlled temperatures, chowing down on designer dog food and scowling at dogs they see on television.

The world has changed, but many folks still want to drive pickup trucks, even though they guzzle gas, take up too much space and decrease visibility for other motorists.

That’s why I am working on a new idea: Convince the good ol’ boys and girls to buy a Prius or other gas-sipping hybrid that gets 40-plus miles per gallon.

I make this proposal from the bottom of my heart. You see, I too drive a truck, so I am one of the many modern men who wants to pilot a manly machine but please, no heavy lifting lest I get calluses.

This idea offers the best of both worlds — economy plus style.

We can modify the Prius so drivers feel like they’re still in a truck. Put a gun rack in the back window of the Prius, leopard skin covering on the steering wheel, and plenty of space on the bumper for faded “Mc- Cain-Palin” stickers.

Hybrids are also very quiet, which is heresy to a pickup person. There’s nothing like the deep grumble of an exhaust system to tell the little lady I’m home for dinner.

We can adapt the sound system to emit a throaty vroom vroom to let everyone know your truck is within a five-mile radius. This is the essence of the modern pickup — lots of bark, little work.

You’re probably saying, “Mark, this is just another one of your daffy ideas,” but I’m simply a man ahead of the times. Let’s be patient with this idea and my other inspirations, too.

• People inevitably will adopt my idea of butt transplants. For many women of a certain age, their derrieres expand significantly. Men, meanwhile, lose their seat, so to speak. So let the doctors whittle a pound or two from her and attach it to him.

• It’s a cinch that men will flock to my Wing Dog store.

That’s where I will rent dogs to men who otherwise can’t get women to talk to them. Once they’re equipped with one of our cuddly wing dogs, the men will have plenty of opportunity to talk with women. (And my dogs will be all-American. No German shepherds, French poodles or Mexican hairless dogs will be taking work away from American wing dogs!)

Back to the Prius pickup truck, which is the proverbial win-win: gas economy, pickup truck style. We take the basic Prius, a bland lump of nerdness, and make it sound and look like a pickup, all while it delivers 40 miles per gallon.

Pensacola Prius Pickup, coming to Car City real soon.


Published in Splash magazine, November 2015


How my writing will help your business

You must tell the story of your business quickly, clearly and in an appealing way.

Many business people can do this verbally; after all, they know their business and feel a passion for it.

But many of these same folks don’t do so well when it comes to expressing their story in print, which is where most business is conducted in these days of the Internet.

Here’s where my 30-plus years of experience can help you, whether it’s making your website more appealing to potential customers, crafting an effective brochure or contacting people vie email and other media.

I will make it simple yet enticing by focusing on the value in your products and services.

I will tell the story of your business, and you will see results — in sales, in website visits and in your bottom line.

Let’s talk.

I’m markobrienusa@gmail.com, and I have 30-plus years in writing. For my clients, I have written everything from postcards to books to get their messages to the audiences they wanted to reach.


Kids keep us driving straight


The truck was traveling more slowly than the rest of traffic in the erratic way of a distracted motorist. “Proud of my Eagle Scout,” the truck’s bumper sticker said.

I passed the truck and saw a man eating a sandwich while he drove.

A few minutes later, I saw the truck again. This time the driver was talking on a phone in one hand while using the other hand to pick something from his mouth, perhaps the sandwich he had been eating.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “he’s proud of his Eagle Scout, but would his Eagle Scout be proud of him at this moment of bad driving and poor manners?”

That’s one of the things about children. The driver probably would have been much more attentive if the Eagle Scout had been in the truck. He’d have been conscious of the need to set a good example, all the better to inspire those parental lectures that we so easily dispense, even if they make us sound just like our parents sounded to us.

Children often make us better people.

They come home from school talking about the value of safety belts and good diet, the dangers of tobacco, and information on other sensible stuff, not to mention juicy gossip about the neighbors.

Smart parents heed their children’s warnings. Once you’re responsible for a child, you need to dial back the partying, work hard to provide a good home and just generally act more wisely than you did B.C. — Before Children.

It feels virtuous, all this good, clean living. You’re a hero, putting Bandaids on boo-boos, buying the newest toy and making the kids laugh with your silly jokes. When they’re little, you’re their hero because you can fix almost any problem — or change the subject when they ask you a tough question.

Eventually, however, you fall from the pedestal. The kids get older and realize you can’t solve every problem, sometimes you’re just flat wrong, and you duck tough questions by changing the subject or dispensing those aforementioned lectures. At that point, there’s no chance they will ever put a “Proud of My Parent” bumper sticker on any vehicle.

But you soldier on and things get better over time. Your kids grow up and realize you did the best you could, and the statute of limitations on old complaints hopefully falls by the wayside. Then they become parents and get a taste of Fatherhood and Motherhood 101, and maybe they appreciate what you endured. Vindication is nice, but here’s what you really enjoy: the grandchildren.

This is a chance to have real fun with kids. You tickle them and help them learn to walk. You take them to zoos and buy them treats and take them home jazzed on a sugar high, giddy and fatigued. When you babysit, you’re supposed to put them to bed at 8 p.m., but you let them stay up until 9:30 because you’re having so much fun.

But you still must set a good example, even if you’re more relaxed now that the mortgage and the career are in the rear-view mirror.

So you eat vegetables and get your exercise to stay healthy, you worry about the schools, you take every opportunity to see the grandkids while you can. After all, they’re human smile-dispensers with their questions, jokes and observations.

And you drive more attentively than the guy with the “Proud of My Eagle Scout” bumper stickers. Grandparents want to make the good times last.

Medicaid opposition is all wet

Eventually Floridians will look back at today’s politicians and say, “What were they thinking? What were they smoking?”

I’m talking about Florida’s refusal to accept millions of dollars in federal Medicaid money that would have improved life for thousands of people.

Forget about the way the Rabid Republicans spurned the money because Uncle Sam would eventually stop reimbursing the state at 100 percent and drop the reimbursements all the way to … 90 percent!

Forget about the access to health care and insurance for thousands of people, just so the Republicans could say “Nyah nyah” to Barack Obama.

Forget about the bitter irony of Floridians now paying for Medicaid for people in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and other states that took the money.

Forget about the lost job opportunities in a state where “Do you want fries with that?” is a question too many workers ask.

Just look at what it has done to the future of hospitals, which are like mini-cities with their need for infrastructure and technology.

The loss of the Medicaid money means hospitals must scrap ideas for improvements that would lead to lower costs, better service and long-term improvements.

It’s not just the latest whiz-bang medical device. Take a mundane example like laundry, for example.

It’s a significant factor at hospitals and other large health care institutions — an estimated 2 to 3 percent of a hospital’s budget.

Modern new laundries can reduce labor and water costs, reducing overhead, improving the environment, increasing sustainability and helping hospitals function more efficiently.

But hospitals may have to cancel or delay plans for major functional upgrades that would improve life for their patients, employees and owners. It’s similar to the refusal to maintain highways and schools, always pushing off long-range improvements just to make a short-term political point today.

No need to be sensible and make the best of a deal we question. It’s smarter politics today to thumb our noses at Obama and his health care program than to make the best of a situation we might not like.

This is because the Republicans have a better plan, right? It’s uh, what is the Republican plan for health care?

Put this example of blindness on the list of errors by fearful conservatives, who have been wrong on all the big issues of this era, opposing women’s rights, gay rights, minorities and pretty much anything else.

They can’t see beyond the end of their noses, which they’re biting off to spite their faces — and Florida’s future.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Hooker sting shows tricks to governing

A little controversy in my town shows how government is tugged in different directions.

Transpose it to your community and you can see the forces at odds in so many Florida cities as people disagree about what should be government priorities.

It was a fairly routine prostitution sting in Pensacola. An undercover police officer approaches an apparent streetwalker, they talk, she offers her services for a fee, and he arrests her. Or a woman is approached by a man who makes a proposition, only to learn that she’s wearing a badge and probably a tape recorder under her clothes. Busted!

Those arrested included nine alleged wannabe customers; the gossip quotient rose when the media published the names and mug shots and the town discovered that one of those arrested was a 72-year-old surgeon who has operated on half the residents.

Officers also arrested six people for soliciting for prostitution — five women and a man with long, wavy blond hair. (Warning: Don’t judge a hooker by his or her cover.)

This crackdown has been a periodic law-enforcement practice in Pensacola for more than 40 years, with mixed results. After a sting, illicit activity dwindles for a while, but then resumes, and the sheriff’s department makes another sting and catches more people, or the same people again. (Incidentally, despite our many churches, Pensacola is not a prudish place. Until the Navy cracked down for health reasons during World War II, brothels operated openly, old-timers say.)

Some critics say prostitution should be legalized, licensed and taxed. That’s a simplistic solution for a complex problem. Do we want to encourage this activity, as government has tempted people to gamble via state lotteries?

“Yes, honey, in America any little girl can work hard and grow up to be President, a physicist or a prostitute.”

Legalization wouldn’t be a cure-all, either. Some people will prefer the time-tested method of cruising dark streets and lurking on street corners because they will be unable or unwilling to follow the rules about licensing, health tests and taxes. The only difference is the legal prostitutes will be demanding the cops do more about their competitors, the illegal prostitutes.

The hooker sting also was criticized because it took a week to conduct. Critics said the cops’ time would have been better spent on more serious crime.

That may be true unless you live or work in the neighborhood where the prostitutes and their customers meet. Alcohol and drugs also are often involved.

Just because people live or work in a downtrodden area doesn’t mean they forfeit the right to a decent quality of life and stable property values.

So that’s the dilemma, not so easily solved. Government feels the heat either way.

It’s one more reason prostitution seems sure to forever hold its title as the world’s oldest profession.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida. Sept. 2, 2014



Ditch old gripes, get new life

Many Pensacolians apparently grew up in log cabins, doing their homework by the light of a smoky fireplace and milking the cows before walking uphill through the snow three miles to school while fighting off wild Bengal tigers.

At least, that’s the impression I get from listening to some not-so-old old-timers mythologizing their pasts, as they harrumph about young people these days and exaggerate the vicissitudes of their own youth.

Ask a few questions and you find that they usually came from a home with two involved parents, a steady if not large income, and the expectation that they could and would get an affordable education or specialized training that would lead to their own version of the American dream. I’m guessing the floors in their “log cabins” were linoleum, not dirt.

Many people don’t have such advantages now, something the grumps overlook.

I don’t mean to bash my fellow seniors; they’re hardly the only negative Nellies. Some of society’s biggest whiners are young people who seem to thrive on unnecessary melodrama: “I’m fabulous because I’m young,” “Mary won’t tell me the secret handshake for being a Pensacola Young Professional.”

And while sociologists tell us that today’s younger generation is the least sexist and most color-blind ever, they still have the young’s ability to stereotype older people and ignore them.

But that’s the way it has been ever since Adam and Eve were complaining about Cain and Abel. Generation gaps are inevitable, a part of one group coming into power and their elders moving to the sidelines.

But we don’t have to be constant critics, saying, “You should have done this” and “I told you not to do that.” We had our turn; let them have theirs.

We also need to remember that we did stupid things, too.

That’s why I keep on my desk a photo of myself at age 29, with my brown-and-plaid sports coat, a textured brown tie and a pile of hair artfully placed into an early but ill-fated combover. It was a fashion faux pas even then, although I thought I was da man, a groovin’ dude indeed!

The photo reminds me that I too have committed lapses in taste, judgment and common sense.

It also reminds me to keep my comments to myself except when asked. I made a conscious vow a few years ago to offer advice only when asked, and the experience has been humbling. No one asks!

Oh, occasionally a daughter may ask my thoughts on car tires or auto insurance, but I think she’s humoring me.

There are major advantages to not being asked for advice. When people talk, they assume you must be in agreement with them because you don’t say stuff like, “Whoa, you idiot, that’s not what you should do!”

So, since you’re quiet and smiling, they like you more. Just don’t let them read your mind.

If you make a suggestion and it goes badly, they will blame you. If it goes well, they will forget you suggested it and take credit for themselves.

What’s the advantage in that?

It’s curiously liberating to not give unsolicited guidance. Now you’re just two people talking, and there’s no burden or expectation.

Instead of grumbling about the old life, use this chance to get yourself a new life.

Splash! magazine, September 2014

Do the math: you can’t live on minimum wage

Opponents of raising the minimum wage should try living on that paltry $7.25 an hour.

The experience might change their minds, or at least make them a little less willing to consign people to living on $290 a week. Do the math; you can’t live on $290 a week (before taxes).

I had a close call with minimum wage last year, and I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

The experience only reinforced my support for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10, the current proposal. Employers will cut some jobs, primarily for teenagers, but “lower-income workers as a whole (will) end up considerably better off,” as the Brookings Institute projected.

This was my first exposure to minimum wage in almost 50 years, since I was a high school junior making $1 an hour selling cigars, cigarettes and newspapers at a pharmacy in Massachusetts.

Back then, in teenage boy world, $1 an hour was good money. Cigarettes cost 28 cents a pack and gas cost 29 cents a gallon, taking care of two of my three adolescent passions. (Teenage girls were my top choice, but the passion was not mutual.)

I soon left minimum wage behind — until last year, when my writing business suddenly just stopped. No phone calls, no email, no clients. No single reason; it just happened.

After nervously twiddling my thumbs for two weeks, I got a job at $7.79 an hour, considerably better than the $7.25 minimum wage that has been in effect since 2009. It hasn’t been adjusted for inflation since then, even though the government dutifully includes cost-of-living raises for Social Security recipients and other pensioners.

Making $7.79 an hour is pretty grim, so I really balk at the thought of $7.25 an hour, which today buys barely one pack of cigarettes and two gallons of gas — not that I have those vices anymore.

No one should weep for me. The house is paid for, the children are grown and successful, and my wife is remarkably mellow and resourceful. Without all these advantages, I couldn’t have afforded to work for such low pay.

When I got my first check, I did a double take. The amount was very small — tiny, almost. It was hard to believe that it took 40 hours of my life to earn this pittance. I kept looking for an extra zero before the decimal, but no such luck.

Oh, and did I mention that this job, like much low-paying employment, required working nights and Saturdays?

Nor does the average low-paid salaried employee get such business-owner perks as getting tax breaks for his telephone, health insurance, computer and other work-related expenses.

Truth to tell, I was lucky to get the job; you seldom see employers rushing to hire 60-somethings. I was especially fortunate to get a full-time job; many employers limit workers to 20 or 30 hours. I cannot tell a lie: I got the job because the owner of the business is a friend.

Fortunately, my own business soon returned to life, and within five weeks I went back to work for myself full-time.

But first, I thanked the owner for hiring me, and then I thanked Lady Luck that I don’t have to live week to week like my co-workers did.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola, where he has lived since 1978. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

If you think Congress is tough, try serving on a condo board

It’s political season and candidates are telling us about their valuable education and experience in the military, business and government, all reasons we should make them our leaders.

But I want someone who was part of a homeowners association.

Not one of those suburban homeowner associations where they gather once a year to sip wine and congratulate each other on having above-average children and the same political philosophies.

No, I want someone who has been in the trenches, doing battle in a condo association where people with competing values duke it out on a regular basis.

“Raise the monthly fee; invest in the building!” “Cut fees, cut costs!” “Let dogs live here!” “Ban animals!” “No children, no noise after 8 p.m. No satellite antennas!” “Live and let live!” “We should recycle.” “This ain’t Woodstock. Go back where you came from!”

Yes, I’m talking about someone who has endured the condo wars of Florida, great training for honing political skills because the nice little old lady in Unit 955 actually is meaner and sneakier than your average terrorist. Also, that polite young man in Unit 1142 apparently is selling heroin and meth, to judge from the quality of people visiting him at 3 a.m.

Serving on a homeowner association board is tough duty. A congressman can hide behind his aides, but life isn’t so sheltered for the person who is elected or chosen to set rules and establish finances for buildings full of people.

Get a tough skin or get used to sneaking out of your condo at odd hours to escape the neighbors — constituents — who want to complain about a visitor parking his car in the wrong spot or the tattooed woman who doesn’t make eye contact in the hallway.

Then you have the people who won’t clean up after their dog or who insist they should be able to bring glass to the pool or keep the sauna party going until all hours.

A Senate filibuster by Ted Cruz is nothing compared to the monologues of angry residents at condo board meetings, and there are no special interest groups to line your pockets at feel-good cocktail parties.

Make a wrong vote at a condo board meeting and you won’t just be voted out of office. You may have to move elsewhere to escape critics with long memories.

Get a few years experience resolving issues like these and then you will be ready to whip Congress into shape.

Mark O’Brien is a writer in Pensacola. Column courtesy of Context Florida.