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Women testify of victories over cancer, infertility at annual Gregg County Thanksgiving Prayer Rally

Shirley Dillard thanked God for helping her survive cancer twice, and Cheryl Jackson credited him for letting her give birth to three children after she was told cancer had left her barren.

The women’s testimonies, along with praise, prayer and school choirs marked the annual Thanksgiving Prayer Rally held Thursday on the grounds of the Gregg County Courthouse.

The Longview Clergy Coalition conducted the event “to bring the community together and our desire to thank God, which blesses the city of Longview,” the Rev. Ray Coates of HighRidge Church of Longview said before the noontime gathering.

Coates and the Rev. Jeff Borgwardt, pastor of First Lutheran Church and president of the coalition, organized the event.

The rally, which started about 10 years ago, takes place on the Thursday before Thanksgiving to give thanks to both God and Jesus.

“One of the great things about Thanksgiving is God does not have to be good to us,” the Rev. Larry Washington of Post Oak Baptist Church in Kilgore said during welcoming remarks to a gathering that grew to about 20 people. “He has already given His Son.”

The Rev. Gayle Bush of Faith Worship Center followed with her booming voice.

Speaking to the crowd, Bush said, “You are so worthy to be praised in the name of Jesus.”

The audience then heard a testimony from Dillard, a two-time cancer survivor. At 3 feet 6 inches tall, Dillard said afterward that she felt 10 feet tall.

The member of Galilee Baptist in Hallsville talked about surviving non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011 and breast cancer in 2013, and she credited divine intervention.

“They said I am not going to make it,” Dillard recalled being told after being diagnosed with the cancer that originates in the lymphatic system. She said her pastor visited her, and she was able to walk out of a nursing home.

“Ring the bell three times,” Dillard said. “I am a living witness of what God can do. The devil is alive. I love the Lord.”

The next testimony came from Jackson of New Life Outreach Church. She credited her faith with being able to bear three children while also enduring two miscarriages and one stillbirth.

“I was not supposed to have kids,” said Jackson, who married at 29. “I had cancer. I had tumors.”

After she became pregnant at age 30, Jackson said her doctor advised her that her daughter would have Down syndrome and recommended an abortion.

She said her daughter, Chasity Thomas, now 23, did not have Down syndrome. Her other children — Gabriela Jackson, 12, and Solomon David Jackson, 11 — attended the rally.

The rally also featured songs performed by the choirs from Foster Middle School in Longview and Hallsville High School. People held hands in a circle while the Rev. Brandon Owens of Bethel Baptist Church in Longview led a closing prayer, and the high school choir closed by singing “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

President Trump reverses safety rules adopted after deadly chemical explosion

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday weakened a rule governing how companies store dangerous chemicals. The standards were enacted under the Obama administration in the wake of a 2013 explosion in West, Texas, that killed 15 people, including 12 first responders.

Under the new standards, companies will not have to provide public access to information about what kinds of chemicals are stored on their sites. They also will not have to undertake several measures aimed at preventing accidents, such as analyzing safer technology and procedures, conducting a “root-cause analysis” after a major chemical release or obtaining a third-party audit once an accident has occurred.

In a statement, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the revised “Risk Management Program” rule addresses concerns raised by security experts, who feared releasing the location of the country’s chemical stores could provide a road map for terrorists, as well as others. Wheeler’s predecessor at the EPA, Scott Pruitt, suspended the Obama rule in his first month on the job after chemical companies and refiners complained the 2017 guidance imposed too much of a burden on them.

“Under the Trump Administration, EPA is listening to our first responders and homeland security experts,” Wheeler said. “Today’s final action addresses emergency responders’ long-standing concerns and maintains important public safety measures while saving Americans roughly $88 million per year.”

Michael Walls, vice president of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council, said in an email that his group commends the EPA for ensuring the federal government’s Risk Management Program “continues to deliver solid results when it comes to regulating safety at chemical facilities.”

Federal regulators sought to tighten handling procedures for flammable and toxic chemicals after more than 80,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate stored at a fertilizer plan in the Central Texas town of West caught fire April 7, 2013, killing 15 people and injuring 160. Federal investigators concluded in 2016 that the company had stored the ammonium nitrate in an unsafe manner, though arson was the direct cause of the blaze.

In a document released by the EPA on Wednesday, the agency said one of the reasons it decided to revisit the standards, which apply to more than 12,000 facilities across the country, is that the 2013 fire “was caused by a criminal act (arson) rather than being the result of an accident.”

But environmental and public health groups said the changes would leave chemical and refining operations vulnerable to future accidents.

“Given the EPA is first and foremost a public health agency, it is unconscionable that the Trump administration would gut key protections for emergency responders and people living near facilities that handle potentially dangerous chemicals,” said Elena Craft, senior director of climate and health at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We need more-detailed emergency plans, increased transparency and safer technology. This action moves in the wrong direction when it’s clear that the cost of chemical disasters is far greater than keeping communities safe.”

Dangerous accidents continue to occur at U.S. chemical plants. Last year a grand jury indicted Arkema North America and two of its executives for what federal officials called “recklessly” releasing a cloud of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The company denied the allegations in a statement at the time, saying, “It is hard to believe anyone would seek to criminalize the way in which one facility was impacted by such a crushing natural disaster.”

Trinity School of Texas students collect more than 17,000 cans for food drive

As student government president, Trinity School of Texas senior Jaden Ayala oversees many projects throughout the year.

The largest project he organizes, though, is the school’s canned food drive for Longview’s Thanksgiving Food Drive.

Ayala, 17, said the school collected 17,327 cans to donate to the citywide food drive. On Thursday morning, the students gathered to load the food into a delivery truck.

The Thanksgiving Food Drive gives needy families a box of food for Thanksgiving, according to longviewthanksgiving.com . Each box contains a turkey or chicken, two cans of green beans, two cans of corn, two cans of green peas, two cans of miscellaneous peas or beans, two cans of soup, one bag of pasta, one canned meat, one dessert, two boxes of Jell-O mix, one can of cranberry sauce, one loaf of bread, one canned fruit, one miscellaneous vegetable and one miscellaneous powdered drink mix.

The main collection day for the public to participate in the drive is planned for 2 to 6 p.m. Monday at Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center, 100 Grand Blvd., Longview.

Charlotte Davis, chairwoman of the nonprofit Thanksgiving Food Drive, said many schools in town participate, but Trinity has been the largest contributor for years.

“I spoke to them a couple of weeks ago, and they all get really excited about it,” Davis said. “It’s a competition between classes, and they start with the little preschoolers. This is the whole school; it’s not just the high school. We could not, truthfully, maintain what we’re able to do without spending a lot more money (without this).”

All the students are required to bring a certain number of cans, Ayala said. The number varies by grade level. Lower school students bring 24, middle school 60 and upper school 108.

Lissa Gore, science teacher and student government sponsor, said the students always bring more than they are supposed to. The school offers incentives to the classes who bring the most cans.

The school has participated in the food drive for years, Gore said. The amount donated keeps increasing.

Community service is part of attending Trinity, Ayala said. Each grade typically has a community service day at least once a year, including the younger students.

“For (the younger students), just seeing that it’s good to help other people that are in need, it gives them something to look up to,” he said.

Vape debate: Are e-cigarettes wiping out teen smoking?

WASHINGTON — In almost any other year it would be hailed as a public health victory: The smoking rate among U.S. high schoolers took its biggest hit ever this year, federal figures show, falling to a new low.

Instead the milestone was relegated to a lone figure at the bottom of a government press release and went unremarked by anti-tobacco groups that have spent decades working to stamp out youth smoking.

It’s a new era in the tobacco wars — one in which the alarming rise of underage vaping has almost completely overshadowed a parallel drop in traditional smoking. And the pivotal question of whether electronic cigarettes are inadvertently helping to wipe out smoking among young people has become a polarizing topic: embraced by some experts, dismissed by others.

“Smoking is disappearing among young people and it’s a great public health triumph that we are failing to celebrate, much less even note,” says Kenneth Warner, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s school of public health.

E-cigarettes typically heat a solution that contains nicotine, the drug that makes tobacco addictive. They are generally considered less harmful than cancer-causing traditional cigarettes. But there is little long-term research on the health effects of vaping.

With one in four teenagers now using e-cigarettes, underage vaping is universally condemned, and the federal government considers it an epidemic.

But Warner and some other researchers believe recent trends continue to show vaping’s promise as a tool to steer millions of adults away from cigarette smoking, the nation’s leading cause of death.

That potential makes the case for keeping e-cigarettes readily accessible for adults — even if a certain level of teen use persists.

But that approach is a non-starter for many tobacco opponents.

“When adults make policy gains on the backs of children, that’s bad, and that’s what the argument boils down to here,” says Dave Dobbins, an attorney with the anti-tobacco nonprofit, Truth Initiative.

Even if e-cigarettes were responsible for the smoking decline among teenagers — which Dobbins says is unlikely — allowing young people to get hooked on vaping nicotine is not a solution.

“I don’t buy the argument that these things showed up and magically changed the world,” says Dobbins. Instead, he thinks the vaping industry has increasingly pursued young people as smoking has fallen out of fashion.

But no one disputes the decline.

The percentage of high schoolers who reported smoking fell to 5.8% in 2019 from the prior year, a 28% drop and the largest since the U.S. government began surveying teens, according to preliminary numbers released in September. The trend isn’t limited to one year or one survey.

A similar study conducted by the University of Michigan shows smoking among 12th graders has plummeted 50% since 2015, the largest drop of its kind in the survey’s 40-year history.

The smoking rate for adults is roughly 14% and has been falling slowly for decades.

The decline among teens has been seized upon by vaping proponents, who argue it undercuts the gravest argument against the nicotine-emitting devices: that they act as a “gateway” to traditional smoking.

That’s the conclusion of a number of short-term studies that followed young people and surveyed their use of tobacco and nicotine. The prestigious National Academies found “substantial evidence” for the gateway effect in a 2018 consensus paper. And the Food and Drug Administration even uses the concept as the tagline in its anti-vaping video ads: “Teens who vape are more likely to start smoking cigarettes.”

For now, experts on both sides acknowledge there is no definitive evidence linking e-cigarettes to the decline in youth smoking. The question is clouded by too many long-term trends and complicating variables. Teen smoking has been decreasing since the late 1990s and is influenced by government policies, public opinion, changing products and tobacco industry marketing.

But for researchers who believe vaping is benefiting public health, the falling numbers make one thing clear: E-cigarettes are not driving large numbers of young people to smoke. The numbers suggest the exact opposite.

“The key point here is that it seems we have seen a drastic reduction in smoking,” says Dr. David Levy, a tobacco researcher at Georgetown University. “That’s clearly a good thing and it’s not something that we want to mess with.”

The question of how to best regulate e-cigarettes remains unresolved in Washington. The Trump administration has recently backed away from an earlier plan to ban virtually all vaping flavors due to their appeal to teens. No deadline has been set for a new proposal or announcement.

Levy and others favor targeted approaches to curb youth use, such as raising the minimum purchase age to 21 nationwide. They oppose sweeping bans and restrictions, which could impact use by adult smokers.

In a paper last year, Levy, Warner and several colleagues estimated that smoking among 12th graders has fallen three times faster since an uptick of e-cigarette use around 2014, compared with the earlier long-term trend.

However, the authors did not conclude that e-cigarettes caused the decline and noted that it could have been influenced by other factors, such as anti-tobacco campaigns.

Brian King of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also emphasized that survey data cannot prove a cause and effect between vaping and smoking rates. Therefore, it’s impossible to know which teens avoided or quit smoking due to vaping, versus those who would never have picked up cigarettes anyway.

Additionally, the data suggest many of the estimated 5.3 million underage students who vape were never at risk to become smokers.

“So that reflects an on-ramp to nicotine use that we otherwise would not have had without e-cigarettes,” says King, a deputy director in CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health.

The CDC and other health experts warn that nicotine can harm parts of the developing brain that control learning, memory and mood in young people.

The vaping debate underscores a growing rift in the tobacco control field. For decades, advocates, regulators and researchers were united in a common fight against cigarettes, which cause cancer, heart disease, stroke and many other deadly diseases.

But views have diverged since the introduction of e-cigarettes and other alternative products. Some experts believe the most realistic approach is to shift smokers away from burning tobacco toward less-risky products.

On the other side are those who say there is no safe way to use tobacco or nicotine and quitting should be the goal.

With local, state and other authorities cracking down on e-cigarettes — particularly kid-friendly flavors — public sentiment has increasingly been turning against vaping. On Tuesday the influential American Medical Association called for a “total ban” on all e-cigarettes and vaping products.

Some longtime industry observers warn that vaping proponents may have missed their opportunity to benefit public health.

“The industry blew it,” said Dr. David Kessler, speaking at a recent conference for vaping and tobacco executives. Kessler served as FDA commissioner during the 1990s, when he tried unsuccessfully to assert authority over tobacco products. Congress did not grant the FDA that power until 2009.

Starting in May, all e-cigarettes will need to undergo FDA review. Only those that can demonstrate a benefit for U.S. public health will be permitted to stay on the market.

Some vaping companies expect to win the FDA’s endorsement, but Kessler noted: “I don’t see it.”

“You lost the trust of the American public when it comes to vaping and you’ve set back the issue decades,” he said.