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Russia, Turkey seal power in northeast Syria with new accord

In Nation & World | Russia and Turkey reach agreement on control of northeast Syria | Page A10

In a first, FDA approves smokeless tobacco product sold by Richmond company as 'modified risk'

For the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is allowing a tobacco company to advertise one of its products as less harmful than cigarettes.

The agency on Tuesday gave approval for the Richmond-based tobacco company Swedish Match North America to sell one of its smokeless tobacco products as “modified risk.” The designation means Swedish Match can market eight versions of its General Snus — a brand of oral, smokeless tobacco sold and consumed in small, tea bag-like pouches — as less risky to a user’s health when compared with smoking cigarettes.

General Snus is sold widely at retail stores in the U.S. The FDA authorization enables Swedish Match to claim that “using General Snus instead of cigarettes puts you at a lower risk of mouth cancer, heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.”

It is the first time the FDA has granted a modified-risk application under rules established when Congress gave the federal agency authority to regulate tobacco products in 2009. Under that law, tobacco companies cannot make health-related claims about their products in the U.S. without FDA authorization.

In a statement, Swedish Match — a Sweden-based company with its North American headquarters in downtown Richmond — called the decision “historic.”

“Today’s decision is a huge accomplishment for public health in the U.S. and another step toward realizing our vision of a world without cigarettes,” said Gerry Roerty, Swedish Match’s vice president and general counsel.

Swedish Match makes various types of smokeless and chewing tobacco and cigars, but not cigarettes. General Snus is made in Sweden.

Even with the modified risk approval, warning labels will remain on the General Snus tobacco cans. Those rotating labels, which have been required on smokeless tobacco products sold in the U.S. since 1986, warn consumers that the products can cause mouth cancer, gum disease or tooth loss.

However, Swedish Match can now use other ways to communicate to consumers that its snus (pronounced snoose) products are less risky than smoking.

“There is a range of marketing opportunities for us, including point-of-sale and websites,” said Jim Solyst, Swedish Match’s vice president for federal regulatory affairs.

“This decision reinforces that a reduction of risk can occur by switching to a product like General Snus,” Solyst said.

The FDA said Tuesday that it approved Swedish Match’s application after reviewing scientific evidence on the company’s snus products, including long-term epidemiological studies showing that using the products led to lower risk of certain diseases when compared with smoking.

However, the agency also warned that a modified-risk designation “does not mean these products are safe or ‘FDA approved.’”

“All tobacco products are potentially harmful and addictive, and those who do not use tobacco products should continue to refrain from their use,” the FDA said in a statement. “The modified risk orders are product-specific and limited to five years.”

The approval for the Swedish Match product comes as U.S. tobacco companies have been seeking to introduce new products to the market as alternatives to smoking conventional cigarettes.

The Henrico County-based tobacco company Altria Group Inc., for instance, has a modified-risk application pending before the FDA for a moist snuff product made by a subsidiary, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.

Altria also is supporting a modified-risk application that Philip Morris International made to the FDA for its iQOS product, a smoking device that heats tobacco instead of burning it. Philip Morris International was spun off as a separate company from Altria in 2008, but Altria has the rights to sell the iQOS product in the U.S., and it recently introduced the product for a test market in the Atlanta area.

“We believe FDA’s modified risk tobacco product pathway is important and that adult tobacco consumers deserve accurate and scientifically grounded communications about tobacco products,” said Altria spokesman Steve Callahan.

In a note to investors, Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog called the Swedish Match approval “good news for the broader tobacco/nicotine industry, as it demonstrates the FDA’s commitment to a ‘continuum of risk’ strategy and provides a viable pathway/process for manufacturers.”

'Pushing poison through the veins' of Petersburg: Feds tout crackdown on High Society Hit Squad

A Petersburg gang member who distributed 10,000 doses of opioids was sentenced Tuesday to more than a dozen years in federal prison, becoming the eighth associate of the High Society Hit Squad convicted in a two-year crackdown on drugs, firearms and violence in Petersburg.

“Gang members and associates of the High Society Hit Squad are responsible for pushing poison through the veins of that community, infecting their own and preying upon their neighbors,” said Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. “In the midst of an opioid crisis, this gang thought nothing of pushing heroin and fentanyl to a community already on the brink, just to line their pockets.”

Miles Owanga Johnson, 39, better known as “Buck J,” became the latest member or associate of the High Society Hit Squad to be convicted in U.S. District Court in Richmond and sentenced to prison. Authorities said he conspired to distribute between 1 and 3 kilograms of heroin in Petersburg and elsewhere.

“Buck J was a major narcotics trafficker,” Terwilliger said during a news conference in downtown Richmond. “He trafficked over 10,000 separate doses of opioids — in theory enough to cause 10,000 deaths.”

“Most shocking, and frankly tragic and appalling, Buck J has over 36 adult convictions, over three dozen prior chances to turn it around and follow the law,” Terwilliger added. “This is someone who needed the attention of federal authorities, needed to be removed from society. And now, tragically, he will join some family members, as well as associates, in federal prison as part of this case.”

Terwilliger and other law enforcement officials used the occasion to publicize their ongoing efforts to dismantle a major drug and firearms trafficking gang that was a plague on Petersburg.

“The investigative efforts were driven towards the drivers of violence: the shooters, the armed drug traffickers,” said Ashan Benedict, special agent in charge of the Washington field office for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Benedict noted the collection of 60 firearms that were displayed on tables in front of him — weapons seized from gang members and associates during the investigation.

“These 60 firearms were not just possessed, they were discharged in our community in Petersburg,” Benedict said. “That’s important to note because these guns were shot in the streets where family and children were located. They were used to shoot into vehicles, they were used to shoot into occupied dwellings, in homicides, and assaults with intent to kill.”

The guns — as well as numerous rounds of ammunition — were seized in traffic stops and during the execution of search warrants from people legally prohibited from possessing firearms and suspects who used them during crimes, Benedict said.

“Where these guns originated from continues to be investigated,” Benedict said.

He added: “I expect more arrests to come.”

The other defendants convicted and sentenced for drug and/or firearm offenses are: Armon Lee, 26, of Warfield; Terrell Dean Johnson, 30, of Petersburg; Titus Maurice Lee, 44, of Petersburg; Autrelle Malik Waddell, 22, of Petersburg; Charles Lee Avery, 44, of Petersburg; Tyrell Jakahree Allen, 26, of Prince George County; and John Pruitte of Chesterfield County.

Four additional defendants await trial.

The cases involving the High Society Hit Squad — also referred to as H$2X — were developed as part of Project Safe Neighborhood, which is the centerpiece of the U.S. Department of Justice’s violent crime reduction efforts. Through the project, a variety of law enforcement stakeholders work together to identify the most pressing violent crime problems in a community and develop comprehensive solutions to address them, authorities said.

The strategy focuses enforcement efforts on the most violent offenders.

“We’ve made Petersburg a top priority,” Terwilliger said. “We’ve dedicated our finite resources to the Petersburg and Tri-Cities area in terms of manpower and prosecutions. We have a lot of work left to do.”

Terwilliger said Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller asked for federal assistance, and originally the ATF and the Drug Enforcement Administration answered the call. Other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies joined in.

“Approximately seven months ago, 150 agents descended on Petersburg, and as Chief Miller so eloquently put it at the time, to liberate this city of these drug traffickers and sellers of misery. Many of those arrested have extensive criminal histories and have not been held accountable.”

Notwithstanding the grim reality of the violence and criminality spawned by the gang in his city of 32,000, Miller said the array of firearms seized and the people arrested “are not indicative of the true spirit of Petersburg.”

“We still have a lot more work to do,” Miller said. “But the accountability piece is here now, and we’re saying Petersburg is a community of change.”

Technical changes to state budget call for nearly $300M more annually to Virginia schools

A week after Virginia’s public education governing board said it would cost nearly $1 billion more per year to give students the education they need, lawmakers are now looking at a bill of about $300 million on top of that.

Technical changes to the state’s education budget total $595.7 million over the next two years, the Senate Finance Committee learned Tuesday.

That cost doesn’t include the $950 million in funding — a roughly 18% increase to the $5.36 billion spent by the state on public education in 2017-18 — the Virginia Board of Education is recommending lawmakers spend to hire more reading specialists, have smaller class sizes and give more money specifically to schools serving students from low-income families, among other things.

Every other year, the state is required to “rebenchmark” its budget, which entails updating the number of students enrolled in state schools, the cost of inflation and the percentage of students qualifying for free meals, among other things.

The changes aren’t recommendations to alter funding policy or pay for new programs, said Kent Dickey, the Virginia Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of budget, finance and operations, in his presentation to the committee.

Take an update to the number of English Learner students, for example. Virginia has seen a drastic climb in the number of students learning English over the past 10 years, rising from 64,261 in 2009-10 to 107,757 last school year.

With that growth expected to continue, state officials say Virginia will need $7.4 million more over the next two years — the 2020-2022 biennium — to pay for remedial summer school and the English as a Second Language programs.

The nearly $600 million rebenchmarking cost is split over two years — $289.6 million in 2020-21 and $306.1 million in 2021-22. The Finance Committee did not discuss Tuesday the board’s proposals or if it will fund them.

“Our schools are educating more students, and more of them come speaking a language other than English, more are living in poverty, more have suffered some form of trauma growing up,” said Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston last week after the Board of Education’s vote. “We should be adding services to help these children become healthy, educated adults — we shouldn’t be cutting their lifeline.”

State spending per student is currently down about 8% compared with before the Great Recession, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based research organization. An average of $5,749 is spent on every student, compared with $6,225 in the 2008-09 school year, after adjusting for inflation.

The updated funding requirements for K-12 will be one of the top drivers for spending in the two-year budget that Gov. Ralph Northam will propose on Dec. 17 for action by the General Assembly in the 60-day legislative session that will begin Jan. 8. The other big mandatory spending requirements are the new forecast for Medicaid and pension contribution rates for state employees and teachers.

The new Medicaid forecast hasn’t been released, but the Virginia Retirement System said Tuesday that the lower assumed long-term return on investments that it adopted this month will cost the state general fund about $90.4 million in each year of the budget. That’s almost $4 million less each year than the VRS had estimated earlier. Local school systems also will have to pay an additional $108 million each year in contributions toward teacher retirement liabilities.

The VRS lowered its assumed rate of return for the $82.3 billion retirement trust fund from 7% to 6.75%. It was the first adjustment in the return assumption since 2010 and reflects a more conservative approach to stock market investments after a long economic recovery since the last recession.

Northam returns to political campaign scene months after blackface scandal

Gov. Ralph Northam is launching an earnest return to the political campaign scene with a new digital ad and events with more than a dozen Democratic candidates scheduled between now and Election Day.

Northam had all but stopped politicking in the aftermath of the blackface scandal that shook his administration Feb. 1, halting all fundraising and political events months ahead of the state’s pivotal Nov. 5 elections.

With his approval-disapproval ratings improved since February, Northam kicked off an extensive campaign tour with stops in Henrico and Chesterfield counties this past weekend. Northam spoke to volunteers getting ready to canvass for Del. Debra Rodman, Rodney Willett, Ghazala Hashmi and Sheila Bynum-Coleman — all vying for Richmond-area General Assembly seats.

Northam also launched a digital ad promoting legislation enacted during his administration and calling on voters to elect Democratic majorities to complete that work. (Northam’s team declined to say how much it is spending to distribute the ad.)

“If you look at what all these candidates are running on, they’re running on the expansion of Medicaid, health care, teacher pay raises. They’re running on common sense gun safety legislation. That’s all part of Ralph Northam’s agenda that he has pushed for two years,” said Mark Bergman, the director of Northam’s political fundraising arm.

“Candidates have seen that agenda has been very successful. Voters approve of the direction the commonwealth is headed.”

Asked to comment on Northam’s political re-emergence, Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, alluded to the Feb. 2 news conference in which the governor said that he had used shoe polish to darken his face for a 1984 Michael Jackson dance contest in Texas and that he knows how to moonwalk.

“Given how many Democrats walked back their calls for his resignation, we are not surprised he is walking back out on the trail,” Shipley said. “He is, after all, very good at walking back.”

Bergman cited an Oct. 4 Washington Post-Schar School poll that reported Northam’s approval rating at 47%. The same poll found that 7 in 10 Democrats approve of the job Northam is doing — suggesting that Northam’s visibility might encourage, not suppress, Democratic turnout.

“It’s why candidates are working directly with the governor,” he added. (The poll included 876 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.)

First lady Pam Northam — who faced her own racial controversy in February — is also part of the elections push. This past weekend, the governor’s wife attended canvassing launches for Senate candidate Missy Cotter Smasal in Virginia Beach and House candidate Martha Mugler in Hampton. She knocked on doors with House candidate Phil Hernandez on the Eastern Shore and attended a church service in Suffolk with House candidate Clint Jenkins.

Northam’s own advisers acknowledge his involvement in legislative campaigns contrasts starkly with his prospects in the winter, when elected officials and party leaders statewide called on him to leave office.

Northam resisted the calls, vowing to make racial equity the focus of his administration.

Democratic lawmakers and challengers began warming up to Northam in the spring, appearing next to him at public events tied to legislation. A first foray into campaigning in April — a barbecue for Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax — ended with a protest and a last-minute cancellation by Northam.

Nonetheless, fundraising resumed, though at levels far below that of his predecessors in a legislative election year. By the summer, Democratic legislative candidates across the state had begun to accept contributions from Northam directly.

Northam’s political action committee, The Way Ahead, raised $401,000 in the quarter that covers July, August and September.

“By the end of the race, the PAC will have given out a million and a half dollars, and we will have supported the coordinated campaign and candidates up and down the ballot,” Bergman said.

“That’s not as much as previous governors have done, but it’s more than what was expected of us. ... We’re happy with where we are.”

Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, has criticized his challenger, Hashmi, for joining state and national Democrats in calling for Northam to resign but then changing her position months later, after accepting $25,000 from the governor’s PAC.

On Friday, Northam will attend a fundraiser for Alex Askew, who is running for the seat vacated by Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach. Turpin is running for the seat of retiring state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.

Most of Northam’s other appearances will consist of canvassing launches, sessions meant to hype up volunteers ahead of knocking on doors.

On Saturday, he’ll attend canvass launches in Virginia Beach for Cotter Smasal, Turpin, Askew, Hernandez, House candidate Karen Mallard, Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler and House candidate Nancy Guy.

He’s also attending a Saturday fundraiser for Cotter Smasal, and attending a church service on Sunday with Hernandez. Also Sunday, the first lady will attend a church service with Bynum-Coleman in Chesterfield.

The Saturday before the election, Northam will campaign for candidates in Henrico and Loudoun counties and Fredericksburg. The Sunday before Election Day, he’ll spend most of the day with Jenkins, who is taking on Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.

BOB BROWN/times-dispatch  

Actor Alec Baldwin and Democratic state Senate candidate Amanda Pohl (right) talked with homeowner Kristin Goodlett on Tuesday as they knocked on doors in a neighborhood in Chesterfield County. Baldwin was campaigning for Democratic candidates in several districts around the state. (Details, Page A2.)