WASHINGTON (AP) — When a powerful pair of cholesterol-lowering drugs first hit the market last summer, initial excitement in the medical community quickly turned to panic.
The new drugs promised to reduce artery-clogging cholesterol by nearly twice as much as older ones. But they came at an eye-popping price: more than $14,000 per year, compared with roughly $150 for the standard drugs.
Some experts predicted a doomsday scenario in which the two injectable drugs, Repatha and Praluent, would add a staggering $100 billion to the U.S. drug bill as doctors signed up millions of patients with elevated cholesterol. But then something unexpected happened: not much.
Caught between skeptical doctors and cost-conscious insurers, the drugs have barely sold. Sanofi reported a meager $10 million from Praluent in the last quarter, which it co-markets with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. Amgen Inc. declined to break out Repatha sales.
Spending on pricey specialty drugs has doubled over the last five years to $150 billion, contributing 70 percent of the growth in U.S. medication spending since 2010, according to IMS Health. But the startlingly slow launch of Praluent and Repatha suggests insurers may have found their own formula for fighting back: proof-of-effectiveness requirements and rigorous paperwork that limits how many patients ultimately receive high-cost drugs. Experts see an escalating feud between drugmakers and insurers with little relief in sight.
"The companies think that their drug is going to save a lot of lives and payers tend to be skeptical of those claims — somewhere in the middle is the truth" says Professor Darius Lakdawalla of the University of Southern California.
Generally speaking, insurers only cover the costs of the new drugs for patients with extremely-high cholesterol caused by genetic disorders, or those with a history of heart problems and elevated cholesterol. The insurance paperwork can run several pages and often requires a detailed history of past treatments.
Caught in the middle of the coverage fight are patients who say they desperately need more options to control bad cholesterol, or LDL.
Christian Jacobs, 24, takes eight medications to manage his cholesterol and related complications, including blood thinners for the seven artery-opening stents he's received since 2011. He has a rare form of inheritable cholesterol that occurs in roughly one in a million people. So he was shocked when his insurance provider, UnitedHealth, rejected his doctors' prescription for Repatha.
"I was floored," he said. "How in the world can we be rejected for a medication that I meet every single standard for?"
Jacobs said UnitedHealth recommended he continue his current drug regimen to see if it lowers his cholesterol. He is appealing the decision.
UnitedHealth, which declined to comment on Jacobs' situation due to patient privacy laws, said in a statement it uses "clinical guidelines and scientific evidence" when making coverage decisions.
"These new therapies offer additional LDL cholesterol lowering and outcomes studies are still pending," said the firm.
Recent medical history is littered with once-promising drugs that lowered test results like cholesterol, yet failed to actually help patients. Considering the high prices and limited data, many doctors favor a "go slow" approach.
"If you're going to spend that kind of money on a medication then you need to know that it's really doing something," said Dr. Hal Chadow of Brookdale University Hospital. Chadow has successfully prescribed the drugs to several high-risk patients, but he wants to see more research before using them more broadly.
Some of the nation's top cardiologists predict the drugs will eventually reduce heart attack rates far below levels currently seen with statin pills, the standard-of-care for high cholesterol since the 1990s. But studies confirming those benefits are still months away, a key reason insurers demand extensive documentation before reimbursing the drugs.
"I really think it's a disservice to the public health to put people in charge of this who are essentially bean counters," said Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic. The medical center has assigned an expert to coach doctors on completing the insurance paperwork.
Industry figures suggest a high bar: 90 percent of claims for Repatha and Praluent were initially rejected in the last quarter of 2015, according Symphony Health, a firm that analyzes insurance data.
The companies doing the rejecting say they are merely following prescribing instructions on the medicines, which are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Steve Miller of Express Scripts, the largest pharmacy benefit manager, says the company is approving more claims as doctors get better at picking "the right patients and making sure they have adequate supporting data."
Wall Street continues to bet that the drugs, known as PCSK9 inhibitors, will become blockbusters — eventually. While many have slashed short-term estimates, most analysts predict that Repatha and Praluent will generate combined annual sales of over $5 billion by 2020, according to polling by Evaluate Pharma. Drugs that generate $1 billion or more annually are considered blockbusters.
The analyst projections depend on one key assumption: that follow-up studies show the drugs reduce heart attacks and death. Amgen is expected to unveil data from its pivotal study later this year, with a similar study from Sanofi next year.
But even assuming those studies pan out, some experts say the drugs — which are self-injected once or twice a month, depending on the medication and indication — are still overpriced.
One analysis concluded that PCSK9 drugs represent a "low" value for patients and said a fairer price would be roughly half the list price, or between $5,000 and $8,000 per year, according to the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review. Sanofi and Amgen each criticized the group's analysis, disagreeing with its methods and conclusions. The Boston nonprofit receives funding from insurers, drugmakers and academic institutions.
Dr. Steven Pearson, the group's president, says new approaches are needed for pricing medicines based on performance.
He points to another pricey drug launched last summer: Novartis' heart failure drug, Entresto, has been shown to reduce hospitalizations and death more than older drugs. But its $4,600 annual price has slowed uptake.
Novartis has signed unusual "pay-for-performance" contracts with several insurers, offering partial refunds if the drug fails to deliver better outcomes.
Pearson's group gave the drug positive marks in an evaluation last year: "We came out saying: good evidence on clinical effectiveness and good value."
In November, Amgen announced a similar agreement with Harvard's Pilgrim Health Center. If Repatha doesn't lower patients' cholesterol to levels seen in company trials, the hospital gets a rebate.
That approach is already used in Europe and could become more common here.
"I think payers really are interested in working with manufacturers to find a way out of the cul de sac in which they find themselves," Pearson said.
ATLANTA (AP) — Coca-Cola saw the popularity of its namesake sodas decline in key markets around the world during the first quarter, reflecting a mix of changing tastes, challenging economic conditions and a shifting business strategy.
The world's biggest beverage maker said Wednesday that sales volume for sodas like Diet Coke and Cherry Coke that bear its name collectively declined in North America, Europe and the unit including the Middle East and Africa.
Total sales volume rose 2 percent, helped by performance of other sodas like Fanta and strength in non-carbonated drinks like bottled water and sports drinks.
The slip in Coke's namesake drinks comes as big soda brands are being pressured in the U.S. and elsewhere by a proliferation of competition. Soda is also an ongoing target for public health advocates, who blame the drinks for fueling weight gain. Diet Coke has been fading in popularity domestically as well.
As people keep moving away from big sodas, Coke has retooled its strategy to focus on attractive packaging like glass bottles and mini-cans that can fetch more money. Even if people are drinking less soda, the idea is that they'll spend more when they do indulge.
James Quincey, Coca-Cola's president, also noted Wednesday that the economies of emerging markets have been hit harder than developed markets. Since Coke tends to sell more sodas than non-carbonated drinks in those markets, he said that affects the company's global soda sales.
To keep up with changing tastes, Coke and Pepsi have also been retooling their offerings to put more marketing behind options like premium water, bottled teas and juices. Even as Coca-Cola continues to diversify, however, the company is trying to burnish its flagship drink.
This week, Coca-Cola unveiled new cans and bottles of Diet Coke and Coke Zero that include more red and make them more reminiscent of regular Coke. By uniting them under a single brand, the company says it will help give the drinks a more impactful presence on stores shelves, and maximize advertising dollars.
When asked whether the new look could lead to confusion, Quincey noted the company has already tested the concept in some markets and found it worked well.
The new cans are rolling out in Mexico next month, and will spread to other countries this year and next. Coca-Cola said it's still testing its options in the U.S., and that no changes are planned for 2016.
The Atlanta company is also slashing costs as it faces challenges at home and abroad, and refranchising territories back to bottlers, who take charge of manufacturing and distribution.
For the quarter ended April 1, Coca-Cola said its profit fell 5 percent to $1.48 billion, or 34 cents per share, as it was hit by a strong dollar and refranchising charges.
Excluding such one-time items, the Atlanta company earned 45 cents per share. That was a penny more than expected, according to Zacks Investment Research.
Net operating revenue fell 4 percent to $10.28 billion. Organic revenue, which excludes divestitures and currency fluctuations, rose 2 percent, the company said.
Shares of Coca-Cola Inc. dropped $2.05, or 4.4 percent, to $44.55 in midday trading. Its shares are up more than 9 percent over the past year.
Elements of this story were generated by Automated Insights (http://automatedinsights.com/ap) using data from Zacks Investment Research. Access a Zacks stock report on KO at http://www.zacks.com/ap/KO
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators say five of the biggest banks in the U.S. failed to develop adequate plans for how they might reshape themselves in case of bankruptcy, which could leave them unable to survive without another taxpayer bailout.
NEW YORK (AP) — About 39,000 Verizon landline and cable workers on the East Coast walked off the job Wednesday morning after little progress in negotiations since their contract expired nearly eight months ago.
The workers, members of two unions — the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — represent installers, customer service employees, repairmen and other service workers in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., for Verizon's wireline business, which provides fixed-line phone services and FiOS Internet service.
"We're on strike to maintain good jobs and maintain our standard of living," said Keith Purce, president of CWA Local 1101 which represents about 3,500 workers in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Standing on a picket line in Manhattan with hundreds of union workers, Purce said they were prepared to stay out "as long as it takes."
He said talks broke off last week and no new talks were scheduled.
Verizon spokesman Rich Young said the company was very disappointed that union leadership has called a strike. He said it has trained thousands of non-union workers to fill in for striking workers and "we will be there for our customers."
The workers' latest contract expired in August.
Outside a Verizon office in Philadelphia's Chinatown section, dozens of striking workers gathered. Edward Mooney of the Communications Workers of America said the issue was about keeping jobs from going overseas.
Between 300 and 400 union members walked a picket line outside the company's office in downtown Albany, where workers set up an inflatable "greedy pig" and rat, said Mike Panzerino, treasurer of CWA Local 1118.
"We're tired of fighting with the company," Panzerino said. "All we're asking for is a fair contract and they don't want to give it to us."
The unions say Verizon wants to freeze pensions, make layoffs easier and rely more on contract workers. The telecom giant has said there are health care issues that need to be addressed for retirees and current workers because medical costs have grown and the company also wants "greater flexibility" to manage its workers.
Verizon also is pushing to eliminate a rule that would prevent employees from working away from home for extended periods of time. In a television ad, the unions said the company was trying to "force employees to accept a contract sending their jobs to other parts of the country and even oversees."
"The main issues are job security and that they want to move workers miles and miles away," said Isaac Collazo, a Verizon employee who has worked replacing underground cables in New York City for nearly 19 years.
"We have a clause currently that they can't just lay anyone off willy nilly and they want to get rid of that," said Collazo, a single father of three children. "I feel if the company had the opportunity, they would just lay people off."
But Young said the unions' talk about offshoring jobs and cutting jobs is "absolute nonsense."
"These contracts have provisions that were put in place decades ago. ... They need to take a look at where the business stands in 2016," he added.
Verizon said in a statement Wednesday that it "has activated its business continuity plans as customer service remains the company's top priority."
In August 2011, about 45,000 Verizon workers went on strike for about two weeks.
Verizon Communications Inc. has a total workforce of more than 177,000 employees. In its statement, the company said it had been willing to participate in mediation if the unions extended their strike deadline, but that the unions instead called a strike.
Associated Press writers Ula Ilnytzky in New York, Shawn Marsh in Trenton, New Jersey, and Chris Carola in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy got a double dose of good news Friday. Economic growth in the final three months of 2015 didn't slow as much as previously estimated, and consumers roared back to life in January, spending at the fastest clip in eight months.
America's most innovative days are gone. A lack of truly groundbreaking inventions has imposed a long-term drag on economic growth — and with it the prospect of meaningful pay raises for most of us.
That, at least, is the argument put forth in a provocative new book by Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University.
The smartphones, tablets and other high-tech gadgets we've grown to embrace pale beside the transformative innovations that emerged between 1870 and 1970 — a "special century," Gordon writes in "The Rise and Fall of American Growth." During that earlier period, standards of living soared, thanks to such epochal breakthroughs as electric light, indoor plumbing, the automobile, radio, the telephone and air travel.
Those innovations raised wages and economic growth by increasing what economists call productivity — the output that workers produce, on average, per hour. When productivity rises, it means workers have grown more efficient. Employers can then pay them more without having to raise prices for customers.
Yet in the past decade, U.S. wages, growth and productivity have all languished. One result is that frustrated Americans have flocked to the insurgent presidential campaigns of Republican Donald Trump and Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, who promise better times for ordinary workers.
In response, Gordon contends that any benefits that flow from future innovations will likely be offset by other factors — from an aging population and widening income inequality to a leveling off of college graduation rates.
In a phone interview, Gordon highlighted the innovations he himself used to help write his book, pointed to the limitations of today's technology — from smartphones to driverless cars — and called for increased immigration.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Q. It's hard to predict technological progress. Why do you feel sure that transformative innovations won't deliver economic benefits anytime soon?
A. Human life involves many different dimensions, and we've pretty much reached a plateau in such basic human needs as food and clothing. We've had a plateau in transportation speeds: We're not driving any faster. In fact, we're usually driving slower than we were 50 years ago. We're making no faster speed in the air than we were 50 years ago.
When you check out in the supermarket, you have bar-code scanning, and you have instant credit card authorization. When you get money, you get it out of the cash machine, which is a form of robot that makes it unnecessary to walk inside a bank.
Many of these things have been revolutionary, but they were pretty much already completed about 10 years ago. That's the reason I expect productivity growth is going to be slower. There are just so many dimensions of human life where we seem to have reached a plateau in innovation.
Q. You predict that economic growth, which averaged roughly 3 percent a year for most of the post-World War II period to the Great Recession, will be roughly half that level over the next 25 years. Will Americans adjust to that?
A. We're seeing Americans already getting used to slower growth. We have a younger generation where unprecedented numbers are still living at home. The age of marriage is going up. The age at which people set up their own households is going up.
All those are symptoms of the general phenomenon that this generation of young people will be the first not to be substantially better off than the standard of living of their parents.
Q. Your book documents how much innovation boosted living standards. It suggests that Americans have a good track record at invention. Doesn't that provide hope it will continue?
A. There was simply a greater opportunity to invent in 1870. We had the telegraph, and so minds were concentrated on how to squeeze a human voice into a telegraph line. And soon after, Alexander Graham Bell narrowly beat out a competitor named Elisha Grey, in the long-desired invention of the telephone, putting the human voice on a wire and ending much of human isolation.
The invention of the internal combustion engine opened the opportunity to achieve man's dream of flight, because unlike the steam engine, it was light enough to propel a set of wings fast enough to fly off the ground. Soon, the aviation industry was born.
The internal combustion engine made possible a new set of industries. Personal travel, motels, supermarkets, a large-scale retailing environment in place of small stores where you had to shop every day.
Many of the opportunities of the third industrial revolution, which is computers and digitalization, were there for the picking back in 1970 and 1980. We made enormous progress converting from paper and file cabinets to the modern world of word processing and search engines.
The lack of progress (since then) is palpable. Everywhere I go, I see technology doing almost exactly what it was doing 10 years ago. Receptionists sitting in front of flat screens, making appointments, just identical to what was happening 10 years ago.
Q. As you note in your book, many of the inventions in the special century took as long as five decades to reach their full potential. Since the iPhone was introduced in 2007, isn't it too early to say that smartphones aren't transformative?
A. I think the potential of smartphones has played out very rapidly. We're still at the dawn of payment systems based on the smartphone. We may 10 years from now look back and marvel at the fact that people had to pull credit cards out of their wallet.
But remember, the entire decade of the rollout of the smartphone and all the applications have not caused productivity growth to budge. There are many people who think we're missing the benefits of the smartphone in our measures of productivity and GDP. But we've always missed the benefits of new inventions.
Economic growth has always been understated. But the degree of understatement was more important in the past, because the innovations were more transformative to every aspect of human life.
Q. Your book is so packed with historical detail, it's hard to imagine anyone being able to write this book in the 1960s, because they couldn't access all that information.
A. Oh, nonsense. This book was written the old-fashioned way. It was written with stacks of books taken out of the library. The only modern invention that was involved in writing this book, besides the word processor, was Post-Its stuffed in the books to flag important passages. There was very little reliance on the Internet in the writing of the book.
Q. What about innovations on the horizon? Aren't driverless cars potentially a significant transformation?
A. We have a fleet of 200 million cars that require drivers. So all of the futurologists who praise the potential safety benefits of driverless cars are talking about a world that's far away, when all of our 200 million non-driverless cars are replaced by autonomous cars. That's going to take a long time.
When you think about most of the truck drivers you see, each has a dual job — not only of conducting the vehicle to the desired destination but of unloading it. All of that would still be done by humans, even if the truck could drive itself. Also, before we become too enthusiastic, driverless cars have been shown to degrade their performance in snow and rain. They are still not capable of navigating at night on rural roads without clear markings for the sensors to pick up.
Q. But that sounds like the way you write about the car itself when it was first invented: They didn't have tops; you had to use hand cranks. Again, previous inventions took a long time to play out.
A. One thing I am very careful about in the book is not to predict anything beyond the next 25 years. I think it's pretty safe to say that it's going to take a lot longer than 25 years to make a complete transformation from our existing fleet of hundreds of millions of vehicles to an entirely driverless fleet.
Q. Many people think their wages would go up if we restricted immigration. Is that a recommendation of yours?
A. No. What's great about immigration is that it is the most potent antidote to our aging population. Immigrants come in, and they're young. Those immigrant workers will be the source of financing for Social Security and Medicare. The more immigration, the better.
Remember that from the Civil War to World War I, there were no passports. Anybody could come to the United States who could pass a rudimentary health exam. We had 30 million people added to a population which in 1870 was only 40 million people. We nearly doubled the population in 30 to 40 years. There was not mass unemployment.
Q. How do you see the economy performing in the next few years?
A. We're going to have a better economy in the next few years than we've had in the last five years, just because our unemployment rate is going to be historically low.
And so it's going to be easier for people over the next two years to change jobs, to better their situations, to quit jobs they find unsatisfactory. There's going to be upward pressure on wages. And some of this wage stagnation is going to be ameliorated.
AP Economics Writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.
NEW YORK (AP) — Apple is challenging government efforts to overcome encryption on at least 14 electronic devices nationwide in addition to the phone of a San Bernardino, California, shooter, its lawyers say.
Lawyers told U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein in Brooklyn that Apple is opposing relinquishing information on at least 15 devices in a dozen court cases in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York.
In a Feb. 17 letter unsealed Tuesday, the Cupertino, California-based company described fighting the government in criminal cases after first opposing the government in a request to extract information from the phone of a drug dealer in Brooklyn federal court in October.
Before that, the government says, Apple had helped it retrieve information from at least 70 devices since 2008.
Apple's opposition began after Orenstein invited the company to challenge the government's use of a 1789 law, the All Writs Act, which the government cited in the Brooklyn case.
Apple said the government was trying to use the law more aggressively in its effort to look inside the iPhone of a shooter in the Dec. 2 massacre in San Bernardino that killed 14 people.
In the California case, Apple was being asked "to perform even more burdensome and involved engineering ... to create and load Apple-signed software onto the subject iPhone device to circumvent the security and anti-tampering features of the device in order to enable the government to hack the passcode to obtain access to the protected data," the letter signed by Apple attorney Marc Zwillinger said.
Zwillinger said the California case was proof that "the issue remains quite pressing" since Orenstein first raised questions about the applicability of the All Writs Act.
Apple and the U.S. government have asked Orenstein to continue to rule in the case even though the defendant whose phone was at issue has since pleaded guilty.
At an October hearing, Zwillinger said Apple feared the government would try "pushing the law to a new frontier" by forcing the company to modify software or change its products.
"We're being forced to become an agent of law enforcement, and we cannot be forced to do that with our old devices or with our new devices," he said.
In a letter Monday to Orenstein, federal prosecutors noted that numerous judges nationwide have found it appropriate under the All Writs Act to require Apple, when presented with a search warrant, to assist in extracting information from its products.
Prosecutors said Apple was being misleading in the list submitted to Orenstein by claiming it objected to the court orders.
They said Apple "simply deferred complying with them, without seeking appropriate judicial relief."
"Apple's position has been inconsistent at best," prosecutors wrote. They suggested in a footnote that Apple was even cooperating in the Brooklyn case until Orenstein made its cooperation public with an October court order.
NEW YORK (AP) — Starbucks is changing the terms of its rewards program so that people who spend around $5 or less per visit won't get as many freebies.
The Seattle-based coffee chain says its loyalty program will award stars based on the dollars spent starting in April. Currently, people earn a star for each transaction, regardless of how much they spend, and get a free food or item of their choice after earning 12 stars.
People will now have to earn 125 stars for a free item, with each dollar spent being worth two stars — meaning they have to spend $62.50 to get their free item. That means people who stick with options like plain coffee are losing out.
For instance, someone who regularly pays $2 for a regular drip coffee would currently earn a free item after spending around $24 over 12 visits. Under the new system, they would have to visit more than 31 times before they earn the perk.
Someone who gets a large latte for $4.45 currently spends around $53.40 over a dozen visits before getting a free item. That person would need to visit a couple extra times for the freebie with the new system.
Still, Starbucks Corp. says the change is the No. 1 request among loyalty program members and predicts it will lead to higher spending by customers eager to earn more stars.
In a call with analysts, Starbucks Chief Strategy Officer Matthew Ryan said the vast majority of customers will earn rewards at an equal or better rate with the change. Without providing details, he said a "small minority" of customers will earn rewards at a slower pace.
The change is not an opportunity to opaquely reduce the value of the program, Ryan said.
The current rewards system can also increase waiting times in store lines, Ryan said, because some people try to get additional stars by asking to ring up multiple items separately. Such instances account for 1 percent of all transactions, he said.
The change comes as Starbucks has been pushing to get more people signed up for its My Starbucks Rewards program. Loyalty members spend three times as much as non-members, and help push up profit, according to the company.
Last month, Starbucks said it had 11.1 million loyalty program members in the U.S., up 23 percent from the previous year.
The coming change will not benefit customers such as Vincent Fiorese, who works in construction management and spends less than $3 on a cup of coffee whenever he goes to work. But Fiorese said it wouldn't deter him from getting his coffee.
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The tech industry is starting to line up with Apple in its fight against the federal government over the encryption it uses to keep iPhones secure.
Earlier this week, a U.S. magistrate ordered Apple to help investigators break into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. Apple has until next Tuesday to challenge that ruling, setting the stage for a legal clash that could determine whether tech companies or government authorities get the final say on just how secure devices like smartphones can be.
CEO Tim Cook decried the order on Tuesday, saying it would degrade iPhone security and make users more vulnerable to spies and cyber thieves. Increasingly, other prominent tech companies agree.
"We stand with @tim_cook and Apple (and thank him for his leadership)!" Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey wrote in a tweet Thursday afternoon.
In a statement late Thursday, Facebook said it condemns terrorism and also appreciates the essential work of law enforcement in keeping people safe. But it said it will "fight aggressively" against requirements for companies to weaken the security of their systems.
"These demands would create a chilling precedent and obstruct companies' efforts to secure their products," the statement said.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai had earlier voiced support for Apple in a series of tweets. "Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy," Pichai wrote on Wednesday, adding that the case "could be a troubling precedent."
Apple's recent iPhones use encryption security that Apple itself can't unlock. The government isn't asking Apple to help break the iPhone's encryption directly, but to disable other security measures that prevent attempts to guess the phone's passcode.
Cook argues that once such a tool is available, "the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices." Law enforcement insists that safeguards could be employed to limit use of the workaround to the particular phone at hand. On Tuesday, Cook posted a 1,117-word open letter that contended the FBI's request might have implications "far beyond the legal case at hand."
For months, Cook has engaged in a sharp, public debate with government officials over his company's decision to shield the data of iPhone users with strong encryption — essentially locking up people's photos, text messages and other data so securely that even Apple can't get at it. Law-enforcement officials from FBI Director James Comey on down have complained that terrorists and criminals may use that encryption as a shield.
While tech companies have spoken against broad government surveillance in the past, the Obama administration has recently sought to enlist the tech industry's help in fighting terrorism. Several companies have recently heeded the administration's request for voluntary efforts aimed at countering terrorist postings on social media.
Civil liberties groups warned the fallout from the San Bernardino dispute could extend beyond Apple.
"This is asking a company to build a digital defect, a design flaw, into their products," said Nuala O'Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based group that has criticized government surveillance. In a statement, the center warned that other companies could face similar orders in the future.
Others said a government victory could encourage regimes in China and other countries to make similar requests for access to smartphone data. Apple sells millions of iPhones in China, which has become the company's second-largest market.
"This case is going to affect everyone's privacy and security around the world," said Lee Tien, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco.
The case turns on an 18th-century law that the government has invoked to require private assistance with law enforcement efforts. Apple has also challenged a federal search warrant based on the same law in a Brooklyn drug case. Apple has complied with previous orders invoking that law — the All Writs Act of 1789 — although it has argued the circumstances were different.
Cook may have no choice but to mount a legal challenge, given his very public commitment to protecting customer data. Two fellows at the Brookings Institution — one of them a former lawyer for the National Security Agency — criticized that stance Thursday, writing that Apple's "self-presentation as crusading on behalf of the privacy of its customers is largely self-congratulatory nonsense."
Cook has made privacy protection a part of Apple's marketing strategy, drawing a contrast with companies like Google and Facebook that sell advertising based on customers' online behavior.
Apple "can't be seen now as doing something that would make their products less safe," said Wendy Patrick, who lectures about business ethics at San Diego State University. "I think everyone saw this issue coming down the pike and Apple always knew it was going to push back when the moment came."
In doing so, Apple risks alienating consumers who put a higher value on national security than privacy. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 82 percent of U.S. adults deemed government surveillance of suspected terrorists to be acceptable. Apple's stance drew fire Wednesday from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and commentators on Fox News.
Only 40 percent of the Pew respondents said it's acceptable for the government to monitor U.S. citizens, however. The survey also found nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults consider it "very important" to be in control over who can retrieve personal information about them.
NEW YORK (AP) — Coke and Pepsi want to shake their Big Gulp image and cultivate a more hipster appeal.
The two soda giants are trying to rehabilitate soda's cheap image and fetch higher prices as Americans keep cutting back on sugary fizz.
That means more stylized cans and bottles of Coke and the expansion of Mexican Coke, which is sweetened with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Pepsi is pushing "craft sodas" and even plans to open an eatery "honoring the kola nut" in New York City in the spring.
A press release for Pepsi's Kola House last month was peppered with marketing buzzwords, and said the lounge would have a "resident cocktail curator" and "artisanal menu." The idea is that its mere existence could burnish soda's image, even if most people never go.
"At the end of the day, we just have to stay culturally relevant," said Seth Kaufman, chief marketing officer for PepsiCo beverages in North America.
Soda remains a big business, with the familiar sizes like 12-ounce cans and 2-liter bottles still accounting for the vast majority of the market. But Americans are reaching for alternatives, with soda facing a proliferation of competitors and being blamed for fueling obesity. Between 2000 and 2014, U.S. soda volume fell 14 percent, according to industry tracker Beverage Digest.
If they're selling less soda, Coke and Pepsi at least want to give it more cachet and charge more for it.
It's why PepsiCo in 2014 introduced Caleb's Kola, which comes in a glass bottle with the words "Honor in craft." At a Beverage Digest conference in soon after, CEO Indra Nooyi said soda had lost some of its "cool factor" and that drinks like Caleb's were helping bring it back.
That cool factor comes with a price. At a New York City grocery store, a 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi was selling for $1.49, compared with $1.99 for a 10-ounce bottle of Caleb's.
PepsiCo also introduced Mountain Dew Dewshine that comes in a glass bottle and is made with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, and displayed a soda called "1893" at a trade show. Like Caleb's, 1893 is a reference to Pepsi's creation by Caleb Bradham in 1893.
"It does address the coolness problem — or attempts to address the coolness problem," said Ali Dibadj, a Bernstein analyst.
Dibadj said the focus on craft sodas is an attempt to emulate what happened in the beer industry, where craft beers have been the main driver of growth. But Dibadj thinks craft's potential on soda may be more limited, since soda's problem for most people isn't taste, but the calories.
There is no definition for what makes a soda "craft," but the trend is characterized by traits such as glass bottles and ingredients that are seen as more wholesome. Jaime Jose, a 21-year-old student from New York, doesn't drink soda but said she's tempted to buy the glass bottles of Coke as an occasional treat.
"It's that retro thing of having a story behind it," Jose said.
The idea is compelling enough that Coca-Cola created a "craft beverages team" last year that oversees recently acquired brands like Hansen's.
It's also presenting its flagship soda to fit craft sensibilities. Sandy Douglas, head of Coke North America, said last year that Coke's packages by the end of the 1990s were all "huge" and "boring."
But he said the newer aluminum bottles and mini-cans were winning back customers, particularly those with more earning power. He also said the smaller sizes were in line with the desire for more modest portions.
Coke Chief Financial Officer Kathy Waller said she thinks such alternative sizes could "easily go to 30 percent" of sales, up from about 15 percent last year.
Mexican Coke is also expanding distribution and enjoying double-digit volume growth, although it remains relatively minimal. The glass bottles and sugar that made it popular among certain circles are in step with the desire for "authentic" foods marketers say people increasingly want.
NEW DELHI (AP) — Coca-Cola suspended bottling at three plants in India, including one in the parched northwest where farmers have been protesting the company's use of dwindling groundwater reserves.
Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, which is a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Co. based in Atlanta, said it was reorganizing operations across its 24 franchise bottling plants in India according to market demand and factory upgrades.
The company's action, however, follows more than a decade of agitation by farmers in the state of Rajasthan, where groundwater levels have been plummeting.
Coca-Cola said it runs the Kaladera plant in Rajasthan "as a responsible corporate citizen," and is collecting rainwater and trying to get more farmers to use drip irrigation, a more efficient method of watering crops.
The plant is still being used for storage and other operations, and could be reopened "should there be a change in demand and volume," company spokesman Kamlesh Sharma said Friday.
The two other plants are in the northeastern state of Meghalaya and the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, according to another company spokesman Kalyan Ranjan.
"Water wasn't an issue in these two plants," Ranjan said, though Andhra Pradesh is another Indian state facing a crisis in its water supply. "We are rationalizing capacity and economic viability, and these are very old plants." Meanwhile, the company says it is building new facilities in India.
Both Coca-Cola and competitor PepsiCo Inc., which is headquartered in Purchase, New York, have faced ongoing protests against several of their plants across India over access to dwindling groundwater reserves.
India is heavily reliant on its erratic monsoon rains for recharging rivers and underground aquifers, and parts of the country suffer regularly from drought.
As a result, India is depleting its aquifers more quickly than any other country or region in the world. By 2030, studies predict the South Asian nation of 1.25 billion and counting will have just half the water it needs.
There is no nationwide plan for how India will cope with competing and growing demand for water from agriculture, industry and urban areas. Hundreds of millions of farmers nationwide are still pumping ground reserves with little to no oversight.
Agriculture accounts for 91 percent of the country's groundwater use, while cities swallow up about 7 percent and industry takes 2 percent.
Amid local agitation in 2005, Coca-Cola closed a plant in the southern state of Kerala.
PepsiCo had also faced a backlash against its plants, leading to it pledging a "positive water balance" and announcing it had replenished billions of liters in 2009. The company says it has helped thousands of subsistence farmers by offering guaranteed purchase of their crops. But last year, it faced violent protests against its plans for a new plant in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
On Friday, some of the 25,000 farmers in the Rajasthani town of Kaladera expressed relief that Coca-Cola had halted bottling operations.
"We are happy," said farmer Mahesh Yogi, part of the local group demanding the plant's closure since 2004. "The plant depleted the water level in the village, and farmers were left with no water to irrigate their fields."
The company maintains, however, that it used less than 1 percent of the town's available water.
"The real issue is that conservation efforts must include steps to get farmers to use water efficiently," the Coca-Cola spokesman Sharma said.
Associated Press writers Prakash Bhandari in Jaipur, India, and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed.
NEW YORK (AP) — HBO Now, the standalone online version of the premium TV channel, has gained about 800,000 paying subscribers since it launched in April, contributing significantly to the 2.7 million net new HBO customers last year.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The widening fallout from global economic woes may compel the Federal Reserve to slow the pace of future rate hikes, but it doesn't see any immediate need to reverse course and lower rates, Chair Janet Yellen told lawmakers Wednesday.
NEW YORK (AP) — If you think your stocks are doing poorly, check out the performance of some of the most sophisticated investors, the ones with more knowledge about what's going on inside businesses than anyone else: Companies that buy their own shares.
WASHINGTON (AP) — For most of an agonizingly slow recovery from the Great Recession, millions of out-of-work Americans huddled on the sidelines of the job market. Yet Friday's jobs report added to evidence of a long-awaited shift:
Some have grown confident enough to start looking for work.
The percentage of Americans working or looking for a job, though still historically low, rose for the third time in four months. It's now at its highest level since May.
Americans in their prime working years — ages 25 through 54 — are driving the improvement and offsetting powerful demographic forces pushing in the other direction. In particular, the vast baby boom generation is retiring, which is reducing the proportion of adults with jobs or looking for one.
This has created a "tug of war," says Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at forecasting firm MFR, Inc., between rising retirements and the employment opportunities created by an improved economy.
"The fact that we've stabilized now after a long decline suggests people are finally getting enticed back into the labor force," Shapiro said. The workforce includes both people who are employed and those looking for jobs.
Earlier in the recovery, increasing retirements and sluggish hiring were pushing in the same direction. The result: A sharp drop in the proportion of adults in the workforce. The unemployment rate fell. But the reason was nothing to cheer: With fewer people seeking jobs, fewer people were counted as unemployed.
Now, the trend is more promising. More people are looking for work. And the decline in the unemployment rate in the past two years — from 6.6 percent in January 2014 to 4.9 percent last month — has occurred mostly because people are finding jobs.
The overall improvement remains modest. The percentage of Americans working or looking for work ticked up to 62.7 percent in January, up from 62.4 percent in September, which was near a 40-year low.
Figures for those ages 25 through 54 are more hopeful: The proportion working or looking for work has reached 81.1 percent, the highest point in a year. And the percentage in that age bracket with jobs has reached its highest level since 2008.
In addition, Americans appear to have a modestly rosier view of the job market. Their perception of the availability of jobs has recovered to nearly its pre-recession level, according to the Conference Board's consumer confidence survey.
Felix Mirando, CEO of ARCPoint Labs, a chain of testing laboratories that focuses on drug and alcohol screening, has seen more resumes from people who have been out of the workforce rather than already employed.
Though many employers are reluctant to hire people with long gaps in their resumes, Mirando says he is opens to them.
The bulk of those jumping back into the mix in the past four months have only a high school degree or less. That likely reflects the strength of job growth in such lower-paying areas as retailers, restaurants and hotels. But many of those businesses are paying higher wages than in the past, either voluntarily or because of higher state minimum wages.
The pay increases could be a big reason more people are coming off the sidelines, said Tara Sinclair, chief economist at Indeed.com, a job search website.
On Friday, after the government issued the January jobs report, President Barack Obama highlighted the uptick in the workforce. But he also acknowledged that many Americans who have lost jobs in recent years lack the skills needed for the positions that are now available.
"I get a lot of letters from middle-aged workers who got laid off, aren't confident about their current skills, and so have not yet re-entered the workforce," Obama said. "They need to get retrained. And so that's a special group — folks in their late 40s, early 50s — still far away from retirement, but feel like they can't adapt."
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The chief executive of the Georgia Ports Authority said Wednesday he plans to step down this summer after leading the state agency during six years of explosive growth at the seaports of Savannah and Brunswick.
The nation's largest home improvement chain, based in Atlanta, said Wednesday it's hiring more than 80,000 workers nationwide for its busy spring season, the same level as in recent years. The retailer estimates that more than half of the temporary workers stay on for permanent employment.
The part-time and full-time jobs include sales, operations and cashier positions across all departments in stores as well as jobs at its distribution centers.
The hiring comes as Home Depot has been benefiting from shoppers' increasing shift to renovate their homes in a housing market that has been solid
Home Depot said in December that it expects its annual revenue to surpass $100 billion in 2018 and backed its earnings and revenue outlook for the latest fiscal year that ended last month. It also said that sales at stores opened at least a year, a key measure of a retailer's financial health, would rise 4.9 percent for the fiscal year that just ended.
Home Depot Inc. is expected to report its fiscal fourth-quarter and annual results on Feb. 23.
Shares have risen nearly 17 percent over the past 12 months, and are trading around $126 per share.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The air traffic control system that choreographs the roughly 7,000 aircraft in U.S. skies at any given moment is the most complex, but also one of the safest, in the world — and rarely a thought in the minds of the millions of travelers who rely on it.
NEW YORK (AP) — United Airlines is trying to bring back a bit of the friendly skies, allowing families with young children to board early.
The move, which takes effect Feb. 15., lets families with children age two and under get settled in their seats before the rush of other passengers clamoring for overhead bin space.
United was the last holdout. It has forced families to board with everybody else since it revamped its boarding process in April 2012.
Policies vary from airline to airline. Some let families skip in front of everybody while others let the first class and elite passengers onto the plane first, then give families a head start on the rest of the passengers.
It's a delicate balance. The airlines want to board passengers as fast as possible and take most of the pain out of the process. However, they also want to reward elite members by letting them settle in early. Additionally, airlines are making money selling early boarding directly to passengers or via credit card partnerships. Those who get on the plane first get a spot in the overhead bin for their bag; those who board last are typically forced to check their bags at the gate.
Sandra Pineau-Boddison, United's senior vice president of customers, says the move comes as part of a larger effort by the Chicago-based airline to be more attentive to passengers' needs.
"It takes a little bit of the stress out of the travel situation," she says. "Some things are just the right thing to do."
It also helps the airline get a plane out on time. Having all the strollers gate-checked at once frees baggage handlers who later have to deal with storing carry-on bags under the plane because there is no overhead bin space left.
The current U.S. airline family boarding policies are:
— ALASKA AIRLINES: Families with children under two can board at the beginning of the process, before first class and elite customers.
— AMERICAN AIRLINES: Families with children board before first class and elite members upon request only. The age is at the discretion of the gate agent.
— DELTA AIR LINES: Families with car seats or strollers can board before first class and elite members.
— FRONTIER AIRLINES: Families with children age three and younger board after the airline's elite members and those who have paid for extra legroom but before the rest of the plane.
— HAWAIIAN AIRLINES: Families with children under the age of two can board before first class and elite members.
— JETBLUE AIRWAYS: Families with children under the age of two board after elite members and passengers in premium seats but before the rest of the plane.
— SOUTHWEST AIRLINES: An adult traveling with a child six years old or younger may board during Family Boarding, which occurs after the "A'' group has boarded and before the "B'' group begins boarding.
— SPIRIT AIRLINES: Families board after passengers who paid extra to board early and those who purchased space for a carry-on bag in the overhead bin.
— UNITED AIRLINES: Starting Feb. 15, families with children age two and under can board before first class and elite members.
— VIRGIN AMERICA: Families with young children can board after first class passengers, those in the extra legroom seats, passengers who paid for early boarding, those with elite status and those with a Virgin America credit card. They do get to board before other coach passengers.
Follow Scott Mayerowitz at twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/scott-mayerowitz
Georgia has failed to ensure that developmentally disabled people discharged from state hospitals receive adequate services to remain safe and avoid harm, federal attorneys say in a recent court filing.
NEW YORK (AP) — Soon, losing your ATM card won't be the financial life-stopping event it used to be. Just don't also lose your phone.
JPMorgan Chase customers will soon be able to withdraw cash or initiate other transactions using their cellphone at Chase ATMs being upgraded later this year.
The move will include new cash machines that don't require a card and upgrades to existing machines that will allow customers to withdraw more money and in different denominations, said Chase spokesman Michael Fusco. The withdrawal limit will also be substantially higher, up to $3,000 during branch hours.
The first generation of these new ATMs will allow customers to access the machine by inputting a code found on their Chase mobile app, Fusco said. Future upgrades of machines will allow customers to use their cell phone's near-field wireless communication feature to access their accounts, using the technology that enables shopping checkout features such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay.
Customers will still be able to use their ATM cards if they want to, Fusco said. The cell phone technology will just be an option.
Chase and other banks have been rolling out new and upgraded ATMs in a continuing effort to replace the fleets of bank tellers at each branch once needed to handle routine customer transactions. Fusco said Chase now does more transactions each month via ATMs than with tellers.
Tellers will still be in branches, however, to help with specialized customer transactions, Fusco said. Chase is also moving tellers from behind the counter to the branch floor to help customers navigate the new machines.
Other features being rolled out with the new machines eventually, the company announced Monday, will allow customers to cash checks, and pay Chase credit card bills and mortgages at the ATM. Those features will arrive within the next two years.
Ken Sweet covers banks and consumer financial issues for the AP. He can be followed on Twitter at @kensweet. Read more of his stories at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/ken-sweet.
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Power has stopped pumping wastewater from a lagoon filled with coal ash into a Milledgeville-area lake, a company spokesman said.
The emergency pumping had gone on for weeks at Lake Sinclair, raising concerns from environmentalists that workers at shuttered electricity Plant Harllee Branch were fouling the popular recreation area with toxins. Advocates also said they were concerned the dams may not have been built to withstand unusually heavy rains.
"We were able to safely lower the water level in our ash pond in compliance with our permit," Georgia Power spokesman Jacob Hawkins said. He said the water was treated, but did not give details. The pumping stopped Jan. 18, Hawkins said, and the company informed the state the next day, said state Environmental Protection Division spokesman Kevin Chambers.
During the pumping, Chambers said tests showed the wastewater was safe and there were no signs of dam failure or that the electricity company violated state laws. However, the plant's wastewater permit does not require Georgia Power to test for arsenic and other heavy metals found in coal ash that cause cancer.
Plant Branch's man-made ponds store millions of cubic yards of ash, which was produced by the coal fires that burned there for decades. A November Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that Georgia Power's coal ash ponds have a decades-long history of leaks and are prone to spills.
Pumping started Dec. 22, said Altamaha Riverkeeper Jen Hilburn, who discovered it after receiving a tip. Similar pumping in North Carolina prompted that state's regulators to find that Duke Energy broke state law in 2014 when it sent as much as 61 million gallons into a North Carolina canal that fed into the Cape Fear River. Members of Waterkeeper Alliance and other groups discovered the violation.
"Hopefully they'll have it (the ponds) to a level to where it'll be low enough for the rains," Hilburn said of Georgia Power. "My concern is these coal ash ponds that are held up by these rickety dams of rock and dirt are not sustainable in the long term."
The group and other environmental advocates say the safest way to store the coal ash is to move it away from rivers and lakes.
The ponds are built to withstand a 24-hour rainfall of 5.7 inches, according to a 2004 wastewater permit application for Plant Branch. Nearly 11 inches fell in December in Milledgeville. About 2.33 has fallen so far in January, according to the National Weather Service.
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia's busy seaports are beginning to see business slow down after a record-smashing 2015 in which shipments of containerized cargo through Savannah jumped a whopping 11.7 percent, the Georgia Ports Authority reported Monday.
NEW YORK (AP) — Airlines canceled more than 6,000 flights to, from or within the U.S. for Friday and Saturday, as a blizzard began covering much of the Eastern U.S.
The bulk of Friday's 2,900 cancelations are in Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. Another 3,300 flights were canceled for Saturday. Those cancelations center on Philadelphia, Washington, and New York, with airlines essentially shutting down all flights into those cities.
By Sunday afternoon, however, the airlines hope to be back to a full schedule to handle the typical influx of business travelers heading out to start a week on the road.
Overall, the airlines have canceled about 13 percent of their scheduled flights in the U.S. for Friday and Saturday.
One bit of good news: Saturday is the slowest travel day of the week. There are a little more than 22,000 flights scheduled to, from or within the U.S., according to FlightAware. That's about 5,000 fewer flights — and 400,000 fewer passengers — than on Thursday or Friday.
All major airlines have issued waivers for travel over the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. The airports included vary by airline but include some cities in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia all the way up the coast to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. American Airlines alone has issued waivers for 42 airports.
For those looking to instead cancel their trips, they need to wait until the airline officially cancels their flight. Airlines have been much more proactive in recent years about canceling flights, often doing so up to a day in advance. More travelers are impacted but they aren't stuck waiting in airports. It also lets airlines restart the system quicker because they have planes and crews in place.
If your flight is canceled and maybe you are stuck at the airport, consider taking these actions:
— If your flight is canceled — and you are at the airport — get in line to speak to a customer service representative. But also call the airline directly. If the phone lines are jammed, try the airline's overseas numbers. You'll pay long-distance rates, but might not have to wait. (Put those numbers in your phone now.) Finally, consider sending a tweet to the airline.
— There are more to airline lounges than free drinks and lights snacks. The real secret to the lounges is that the airline staffs them with some of its best — and friendliest — ticket agents. The lines are shorter and these agents are magically able to find empty seats. So consider buying a one-day pass. It typically costs $50 but discounts can sometimes be found in advance online.
— If weather causes cancellations, use apps like HotelTonight and Priceline to find last-minute hotel discounts for that night. Warning: Many of the rooms are nonrefundable when booked, so lock in only once you are stuck.
ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has gone back to wearing the double crown as the world's busiest airport, ranking highest in both flight counts and passengers for 2015.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://on-ajc.com/1Tbt6J5 ) that newly released statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration show that the Georgia airport retook the lead in flight counts from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport last year.
In 2015, Hartsfield-Jackson had a total of 882,497 flights, compared with O'Hare's 875,136.
The Atlanta airport has had the world's highest numbers of passenger traffic for the past 18 years, with more than 100 million passengers passing the airport last year.
BEIJING (AP) — The Facebook page of Taiwan's president-elect was flooded Thursday with tens of thousands of pro-China comments following a campaign by young mainlanders to jump the country's "Great Firewall" into normally forbidden overseas social media to express displeasure over the recent election.
President-elect Tsai Ing-wen is from a party that is less friendly toward Beijing and the notion of eventual reunification than the previous one, angering many residents in China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory.
A youth-dominated online forum on the mainland with millions of members launched the crusade late Wednesday to flood Tsai's Facebook page as well as news sites, including Taiwan's SETN.com and Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, with comments and conversation. Thousands of mainland Web users appear to have answered the call.
One of Tsai's Facebook posts drew 42,000 comments, with most warning that China "firmly opposes any independence." Some taunted the island to declare formal independence so Beijing has an "excuse to annihilate the bandits."
Though some Chinese have long chafed at Internet restrictions aimed at insulating residents from forbidden, harmony-eroding ideas from outside, this is the first major public groundswell to scale the wall in the opposite direction, for Chinese Internet users who want to flaunt their unswerving nationalism abroad.
Though Chinese authorities tolerate eruptions of nationalist sentiment, they also do not like to see them spiral out of control. Beijing is wary of efforts to break out of the confines of the Chinese cyberspace and has hinted that the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, to access banned websites could be considered illegal.
Beijing-based journalist Zhang Heng said the outpouring among young Chinese was the result of youthful exuberance and being "brainwashed for more than a dozen years by thought and politics courses" in school.
The crusade's silver lining was that many young people are learning how to access the global Internet, he said.
"I think that's a good skill to have," Zhang said. "At least some of the young people will see a more colorful world on the other side of the wall. When they are exposed to more information, they won't be easily manipulated by a single political thought."
The campaign was organized by an online forum named after former Chinese football player Li Yi that has bred some of the most popular expressions in China's Web culture. Forum members planned further forays over the Great Firewall into Taiwan's cyberspace later this week.
Supporters in China have cheered the online aggression as a spontaneous manifestation of the will of China's young generation, while critics there have derided the crusaders as "little pinkos" who blindly follow the propaganda of the "red" Communist Party.
On Tsai's Facebook page, the Taiwanese president-elect did not directly address the storm of comments but posted a picture with the line, "The greatness of this country lies in that everyone has the right to be oneself."
On the Facebook page for the news site SETN.com, the web administrator for its entertainment page engaged with the "crusaders." When some of them inquired if they were on the right page, the web administrator helpfully provided the link to the site's political news page.
When a crusader posted a long list of yummy Chinese delicacies as an enticement for fellow youth in Taiwan to look toward joining with the mainland, the administrator replied, "You are quite a cook."
In an interview with PingWest, a website devoted to tech news in China, a person who described himself as a backroom staffer for the crusade detailed how the action was organized. He said he was responsible for translating replies in foreign languages. PingWest said it withheld the man's name because he feared his own Facebook page would be attacked if he were identified.
The man said others were tasked with "liking" the comments by team members, or engaging outsiders in conversation.
"We pretended to be picking fights, but then we found what we brought to the battle was bread and not bricks," the unnamed participant told PingWest. "In the end we were talking about food, and scenic sites.
"The purpose of the Facebook battle is not to convince one side but let the two sides know we are all living beings instead of enemies with labels."
MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian ruble has hit another historic low against the dollar as currencies slid across the former Soviet Union against the backdrop of low oil prices.
The ruble traded above 85 to the dollar for the first time in Moscow early Thursday afternoon, a fall of more than three percent, which beat the previous low of 82.4 to the dollar set in trading Wednesday evening. It later recovered slightly to trade around 84.2.
Thursday's slip means the ruble is at its lowest level since the currency was redenominated in 1998, during Russia's worst post-Soviet economic crisis. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, said the situation was not critical.
"I wouldn't use the word 'collapse.' The rate is really changing, the rate is volatile, but it's far from a collapse," he said Thursday in comments reported by Russian news agencies. Putin has no plans for any emergency meetings, he added.
The steep decline in oil prices— now at a 12-year low below $28 a barrel— has been a severe blow to Russia's oil-dependent economy. The ruble's new lows this week follow the lifting of international sanctions against Iran, which increases the supply of oil on global markets.
The IMF predicted Tuesday that Russia's economy will contract 1 percent in 2016 following a fall of 3.7 percent last year, before returning to 1 percent growth next year. The ruble has lost more than half its value against the dollar in the last two years.
Also Thursday, the Russian central bank said it had revoked the license of Vneshprombank, one of the country's top 50 lenders, after finding evidence that "persons exercising control over the bank" had stripped its assets, adding that law enforcement would be involved in tracking the missing money. The funds may have been spent in Russia, Europe and the U.S. on property such as real estate, shares and "expensive vehicles," the central bank said in a statement.
Vneshprombank reportedly holds funds for major Russian state companies.
Thursday's fall in the ruble was accompanied by slides in other post-Soviet currencies. The Belarusian ruble slid 5.1 percent to the dollar, trading at 21.564 Thursday afternoon. It has lost around 14 percent of its value against the dollar since January 1.
In the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, another major ex-Soviet oil producer, the tenge currency fell to a record 383.91 against the dollar Thursday as the economy feels the pressure of low energy prices. Central bank head Daniyar Akishev ruled out introducing capital controls and said he did not expect major shocks for the country's balance of payments since "most of the negative scenarios ... have already happened."
Associated Press writers Katherine Jacobsen in Moscow, Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and Leila Saralayeva in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, contributed to this report.
NEW YORK (AP) — Hollywood actress, director and author Drew Barrymore may soon add a new title to her resume: international retailer.
Barrymore launched her Flower brand of affordable cosmetics exclusively at Wal-Mart in 2013. Now she says she's in talks with retailers overseas to sell the cosmetics in such places as China, South America, Australia and the United Kingdom. She'll also be launching her own e-commerce business later this year.
Last year, she started selling an eyewear collection, also exclusively with Wal-Mart. And Barrymore told The Associated Press earlier this week she wants to expand into clothing, though it's unlikely it will be with Wal-Mart, even though she said she will always give the Bentonville, Arkansas-based discounter "first right of refusal."
Barrymore didn't want to use her name for the brand, saying she's aware of the perils of a slapping celebrity name on a product.
"The name of the game is about how you financially succeed fast enough so somebody doesn't dump you, and grow slowly and thoughtfully so that you are just not a flash in the pan," said Barrymore, 40, in a one-hour address at the annual industry forum sponsored by investment bank Financo on Monday. Her father-in-law Arie Kopelman, the former president of Chanel, led the discussion in a room full of several hundred fashion industry executives.
Barrymore, the mother of two toddlers, has found a successful niche in the beauty business. Unlike other cosmetic brands that spend a big portion of their money on advertising, the Flower brand spends most of its money on formulations and packaging. That results in premium makeup quality, she said. Flower Beauty, launched in 1,600 stores, is now in 2,500 stores, according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Molly Blakeman. Neither Barrymore nor Wal-Mart offered sales volume.
The Flower Beauty line, which includes fragrances, ranges from $5 for lip gloss to about $14 for foundation. Barrymore's message is about self-empowerment and inner beauty, with messages like, "Happiness is the best makeup."
Wal-Mart says that the Flower eyewear is in all its stores that have vision centers, which number close to 3,000. Barrymore said it is the No. 1 brand of eyewear at the discounter, although Wal-Mart could not confirm that publicly. It ranges in price from $39 to $88.
Wal-Mart, she said, has been a "great" partner. But, she added, "at the end of the day, it is business. It is not friendship. They will drop us like a hot potato if we are not doing well."
As for her clothing venture, Barrymore, known for her Bohemian chic style, noted she won't be offering expensive clothes. "It's not the way I shop," she said.
Barrymore says that she gets inspiration from a lot of sources for her beauty collection
"You will look at a woman's shoe and be inspired by the color," she said. "I am always looking at everything for pigments and colors. The other day I took my daughter's paint and I couldn't stop playing with it .... I think whatever keeps you up ... that is what you should be doing. And if it feels like you are forcing yourself to be inspired by it, that's the wrong road."
Follow Anne D'Innocenzio at: —http://www.Twitter.com/adinnocenzio
Her work can be found at: —http://bigstory.ap.org/content/anne-dinnocenzio
DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines plans to appeal a judge's order that lets Delta Air Lines continue operating at Dallas Love Field during a dispute over gates.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co. on Tuesday filed notice that it will appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A federal judge in Dallas on Jan. 8 blocked efforts by Southwest to evict Delta from city-owned Love Field, saying Delta passengers could be inconvenienced by any move. Delta also serves Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Delta had used Love Field gates leased by United Airlines, but Southwest paid United $120 million to sublease those gates and wants the space. Love Field rules allow new competitors to use gates if they are idle long enough for more flights.
Thousands of health insurance consumers around the country have started the new year dealing with missing ID cards, billing errors and other problems tied to an enrollment surge at the end of 2015.
Brokers and insurers in several states told The Associated Press that they've been inundated with complaints about these issues from customers with individual plans and those with coverage through small businesses. Insurance provider Health Care Service Corp., for instance, has been dealing with delays for about 10,000 companies, while billing errors caused bank overdrafts for 3,200 individual customers of a North Carolina insurer.
These delays mean that some customers may have to pay for care up front or wait for their insurance cards to arrive before scheduling a doctor's appointment, even though many have technically been covered since Jan. 1.
"I've been in the health insurance business 20 plus years, and I've never seen anything like this," said Dallas-based broker Tanya Boyd, who estimates that hundreds of customers have complained about delays in receiving their insurance cards or a confirmation of coverage.
The delays are due in part to more customers than expected shopping for coverage late last year after carriers ended plans in some markets, leaving thousands to find new ones. And a last-minute enrollment deadline extension from the federal government gave people two more days to sign up. An expansion of the Affordable Care Act's mandate that employers cover their workers also may have contributed to the rush.
It's unclear how many people have had trouble so far this year. To be sure, a certain amount of problems can crop up at the start of every year, after insurers wrap up a busy holiday season clogged with enrollment periods for several types of insurance. But brokers say this year has been exceptional.
Boyd, the Dallas broker, said her market was swamped after Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas stopped offering a popular plan that covered about 400,000 people with a wide network of providers. Boyd helped client Bridget Eyler find another plan with a narrower network of providers after the insurer mistakenly enrolled her in a plan she didn't choose. But Eyler, an attorney from the Dallas suburb of Coppell, says she wasn't officially in the system until a few days ago and still has no documents proving she's insured.
Changing federal deadlines also contributed to the problem in some markets. Consumers who wanted coverage that started Jan. 1 originally had to sign up by Dec. 15. But HealthCare.gov, the federal website that handles applications for coverage from ACA exchanges in most states, announced Dec. 15 that it would extend the deadline two days due to heavy demand.
That gave Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina a rush of last-minute business as it was transitioning to a new customer service system. The company said in a statement that it had planned for a 40 percent increase in customer service calls this year but was hit with a 500-percent jump.
That "strained our systems beyond the extra capacity we had planned for this busy time of year," CEO Brad Wilson wrote in a recent blog post.
The insurer had some delays in delivering insurance cards to some customers and took too much money from the bank accounts of 3,200 customers. The company said Friday it had reversed a vast majority of the bank account overdrafts, and nearly all of its customers have received their cards.
For its part, Health Care Service Corp. had resolved by late last week about half of the roughly 10,000 delayed applications it was dealing with for new small business coverage. Spokesman Greg Thompson said the insurer, which operates Blue Cross-Blue Shield plans in five states and covers about 16 million people, is working to process the remaining applications as quickly as possible.
Applications for that coverage quadrupled and slowed the insurer's processing. Thompson said the company doesn't know how many people were affected or why they saw an application spike. He said an expansion of the ACA's employer coverage mandate may have contributed.
This year, the law started requiring small businesses with 50 to 99 employees to provide coverage for their workers. Last year, that requirement extended only to companies with 100 employees or more.
In California, insurance broker Craig Gussin said only about half of the 150 clients he helped enroll in small business health coverage that started Jan. 1 have received insurance ID cards. He said every insurer he deals with has been slowed by a rush of companies seeking new coverage at the end of 2015 because they faced big premium hikes from older plans.
"Every agent I talk to it's the same horror story... there's just incredible backlog," the San Diego-based agent said.
Brokers say most remaining problems should be resolved by the end of the month. But some confusion or delays may return in future years because many shoppers tend to buy coverage at the last minute, and then they don't have to make a payment until after coverage starts. These factors can delay the delivery of cards or confirmation of coverage.
While insurers and brokers sort out remaining complications, Michael MacGregor will wait to see if a recent doctor's visit is billed to his new plan, the old one or both. The 53-year-old Cape Coral, Florida, accountant and his wife switched in November to a new plan offered by the same insurer, Florida Blue.
But their insurer automatically renewed them in their old plan, even though they had paid for the new one. Florida Blue says a high volume of customers, caused partially by competitors leaving its market, has created some enrollment problems this year.
Meanwhile, the couple wound up receiving six insurance cards for the two plans plus another two that were meant for a total stranger who lives 30 miles away.
Kennedy reported from Miami and Murphy reported from Indianapolis.
NEW YORK (AP) — Coca-Cola, under pressure as consumers shift away from sugary drinks, is unveiling a new campaign that for the first time unites its most well-known slate of drinks under a single marketing theme.
The company announced in Paris Tuesday that the campaign, called "Taste the Feeling," will unite Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Light/Diet Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Zero and Coca-Cola Life. The campaign focuses on the experience of drinking any Coca-Cola and that consumers can choose whatever Coca-Cola suits their taste and lifestyle.
The campaign will launch in markets around the world this year. It will include 10 television commercials and photographs that will be used for print advertisements, billboards, in stores and online.
Shares of Coca-Cola Co. are down 2.4 percent over the year. PepsiCo is down 3.5 percent.
U.S. airlines are doing better at staying on schedule than a year ago, but more passengers are filing complaints against the carriers.
Hawaiian Airlines and Delta Air Lines topped the on-time rankings for November, which were released Friday by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Budget airlines Spirit and Frontier had the worst on-time performance and highest complaint rates.
The department said that flights on the 13 largest airlines arrived on time 83.7 percent of the time. That was up from 80.6 percent in November 2014 but down from last October's 87 percent rate.
Passengers on five domestic flights were stuck on the ground for more than three hours, and people sat on a Qatar Airways plane in Detroit for more than six hours, all in possible violation of federal rules. The department said it was investigating the incidents.
Complaints against U.S. airlines rose 56 percent from a year earlier. Still, only 989 people — a tiny percentage of passengers — bothered to file a report with the government. Complaints about foreign airlines rose 14 percent.
SkyWest, which operates regional flights for the major airlines, and Southwest had the lowest complaint rates. Spirit had the highest complaint rate by a wide margin.
More people — 1,272 — complained about Transportation Security Administration screeners than about the airlines. The Transportation Department said, however, that it was "not appropriate" to compare the figures because "thousands" of travelers complain directly to the airlines but never contact the government.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) — Port St. Lucie, a disparate series of residential developments and strip malls, had little to boast beyond its proximity to a nuclear plant and its fame as the spring training home of the New York Mets. Then Lily Zhong came to town, plunked down $500,000 for vacant land and promised to finally build a real downtown.
She produced renderings, showing modern, multistory buildings rising along wide, pedestrian-friendly streets, where people would shop, do business, dine out and attend special events, said Gregory Oravec, mayor of the city of 174,000. Home to thousands of retirees, Port St. Lucie sorely needed a gathering spot to bind the community, he said.
"The big idea was to create a sense of place, to put a 'there' there," he said.
But instead of building that downtown, federal authorities say Zhong hoodwinked officials as part of an elaborate scheme to defraud investors using a special visa program that allows wealthy foreigners to become permanent U.S. residents by financing job-creating projects.
Zhong raised at least $8.5 million from Chinese investors through the U.S. EB-5 visa program and improperly used some of it on personal expenses such as luxury cars, a home and a boat, the Securities and Exchange Commission said in a civil complaint against her.
The SEC obtained a federal court order in November freezing Zhong's assets. Through her lawyer, Zhong, who is of Chinese descent and holds New Zealand citizenship, has denied the allegations. She is not charged with any crime.
The case is one of several around the country in which the EB-5 program, which has been around since the early 1990s, was allegedly used to defraud hundreds of investors out of tens of millions of dollars from San Francisco to Chicago by dangling a chance at U.S. residency, according to the SEC.
"It's a legitimate program that, for the most part, has been used legitimately," said Eric Bustillo, director of the SEC's Miami office. "The fraudsters see it as another way for them to find money and exploit it."
Under EB-5, which Congress recently extended through September, foreigners who invest $1 million in a project that will create at least 10 jobs can qualify their family for a two-year "green card" to live in the U.S. Afterward, they can apply for permanent residency. In some areas, such as Port St. Lucie which was hit hard by the housing crisis, foreigners only need to invest $500,000 in qualifying projects.
About 10,000 EB-5 visas are available annually, according to the Homeland Security Department. But the SEC says there is no government agency that guarantees the investment or "green card," and none vets the business proposal.
In one case, the SEC and the Justice Department accused Anshoo Sethi of using false and misleading information to solicit 250 mainly Chinese investors to invest at least $500,000 each for a $145 million project called A Chicago Convention Center. The investors were told, falsely, that major hotel chains backed it and all building permits were obtained, according to court documents.
The investors paid some $11 million in "administrative fees" that were to be refunded. Court documents show, however, that 90 percent of these "fees" were spent by Sethi and his companies, including $2.5 million deposited in his Hong Kong bank account. Sethi pleaded guilty this week to a federal wire fraud charge that carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.
In another case, the SEC accused Marco and Bebe Ramirez of McAllen, Texas, of fraudulently raising some $5 million from Mexican, Egyptian and Nigerian investors for proposals they were assured would be approved for EB-5. The money was supposed to be held in escrow until the EB-5 approvals came through, but the SEC said it was diverted before that by the Ramirezes into starting a Cajun-themed restaurant and to settle an unrelated lawsuit.
A federal judge ordered the Ramirez assets frozen and appointed a receiver to sort out financial claims. None of their investors got a "green card," court documents show.
Oravec, the Port St. Lucie mayor, said Zhong raised concerns by rarely meeting with town officials and taking no concrete steps to implement her plan. "I've always felt she was fishing," he said.
City Council member Shannon Martin called the incident yet another blow to a project that has struggled to get started for a decade.
"Unfortunately, we are sidelined again," she said at a recent meeting on the issue.
The investors in Zhong's project recently wrote a federal judge begging for help in retrieving their money.
"We had no knowledge of the alleged fraud and embezzlement" the 17 investors wrote.
Zhong attorney David Chase said she supports the appointment of a receiver to handle the finances. In her formal response to the SEC, Zhong said any money she spent on cars, a boat, even education expenses for her daughter, was appropriate. She said she never promised investors they would qualify for the visa.
While the City Center project is in limbo, Oravec said he's hopeful the debacle might eventually lead to the creation of a real downtown.
He gazed out over the grassy, empty lots that sit along busy highway U.S. 1. "We have a lot of work to do for a successful project here."
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A potato genetically engineered to resist the pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine is as safe as any other potato on the market, the Food and Drug Administration says.
In a letter Tuesday to Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Co., the FDA said the potato isn't substantially different in composition or safety from other products already on the market, and it doesn't raise any issues that would require the agency to do more stringent premarket vetting.
"We're pleased and hope that consumers recognize the benefits once it's introduced into the marketplace next year," Doug Cole, the company's director of marketing and communications, said Wednesday.
Before the potato is marketed to consumers, it must be cleared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cole said. That's expected to happen in December. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the potato in August.
There is no evidence that genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs, are unsafe to eat, but for some people, altering the genetic code of foods presents an ethical issue. The food industry has faced pressure from retailers as consumer awareness of genetically modified foods has increased. The retailer Whole Foods plans to label GMO products in all its U.S. and Canadian stores by 2018. And some companies have decided to remove the ingredients altogether.
The Russet Burbank Generation 2 is the second generation of Simplot's "Innate" brand potatoes. It includes the first version's reduced bruising, but less of a chemical produced at high temperatures that some studies have shown can cause cancer.
The second-generation potato also includes an additional trait that the company says will allow potatoes to be stored at colder temperatures longer to reduce food waste.
Haven Baker, vice president of plant sciences at Simplot, said late blight — the cause of the Irish potato famine — remains the No. 1 pathogen for potatoes around the world.
"This will bring 24-hour protection to farmers' fields and, in addition, has the potential to reduce pesticide spray by 25 to 45 percent," Baker said.
The late blight resistance comes from an Argentinian variety of potato that naturally produced a defense.
"There are 4,000 species of potatoes," Baker said. "There is an immense library to help us improve this great food. By introducing these potato genes we can bring sustainability and consumer benefits."
The company has already been selling its first generation of Innate potatoes to consumers, selling out its 2014 crop and currently selling the 2015 crop of about 2,000 acres.
Cole said those potatoes were mostly grown in Idaho and Wisconsin, and are being sold in supermarkets across the nation.
But one of the company's oldest business partners — McDonald's — has rejected using any of Simplot's genetically engineered potatoes.
Cole said the company plans to introduce the potatoes to other restaurants and hotel convention centers as precut and pre-peeled potatoes, where he said the resistance to bruising makes them a good product.
A dismal start for the stock market this year has pushed its major indexes into what is known as a "correction," or decline of 10 percent or more from a recent peak. Here are some common questions asked about corrections and what they mean to investors:
WHAT IS A STOCK MARKET CORRECTION?
A "correction" is a Wall Street term for when an index like the S&P 500 or the Nasdaq — or an individual stock — falls 10 percent from its most-recent high. The S&P 500, the index that investors pay most attention to, fell 48 points Wednesday to 1,890, which is 10.4 percent below a recent high of 2,109 set on November 3 and 11.3 percent from its record high of 2,130 set on May 21.
A correction is not the same as a bear market, which is defined as when a stock index or individual stock falls 20 percent from its most-recent peak.
IS THE ENTIRE STOCK MARKET IN A CORRECTION?
Not every individual stock is in a correction, but the three major indexes are. The Dow Jones industrial average, comprised of 30 stocks, fell 364 points on Wednesday to 16,151, that's 9.9 percent below its November 3 peak and 11.8 percent below its record high of 18,312 set on May 19.
The Nasdaq, a technology-dominated index that far outperformed the other two major indexes in 2015, is lagging the other indexes this year. On Wednesday it fell 159 points to 4,526. That's 12.2 percent below its recent peak on December 2 and 13.3 percent below its record high of 5,218 set on July 20.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME WE HAD A CORRECTION?
The U.S. stock market entered into its last correction in August. That correction, much like this one, was sparked by financial turmoil in China.
Chinese stock markets have been extremely volatile in recent months, rising to record highs and then plummeting on worries about policy changes, slowing economic growth and a weaker currency. While U.S. investors are not exposed to those stock markets directly, China has been the engine of global economic growth since the financial crisis and weakness there concerns investors everywhere.
Those concerns have had an outsized effect on prices of oil and other commodities because China is such a big consumer, and energy companies have led markets lower in recent weeks.
ARE CORRECTIONS A NORMAL THING FOR THE MARKET?
Stock market corrections have historically happened every 18 months. The August correction was the first in nearly 4 years, an unusually long gap. Even the most bullish of market strategists say a correction is ultimately healthy for a market because it removes some of the froth and speculation, and allows investors to buy stocks at more reasonable prices.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Activision Blizzard Inc. is enlisting the producer of "The Hateful Eight" to help lead its TV and film studio as the "Call of Duty" publisher prepares to take on Hollywood.
The Santa Monica, California-based video game company announced Wednesday that veteran producer Stacey Sher has been hired to serve as co-president of Activision Blizzard Studios with Nick van Dye, the former Disney executive who was brought on last year as co-president of the new venture.
"The idea of continuing the tradition of inspired creativity that's been the culture of this company for 35 years with some of the greatest intellectual property that hasn't been locked up by other people was incredibly exciting," said Sher.
Sher is a frequent collaborator with filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. Her credits include "Pulp Fiction," ''Django Unchained," ''Erin Brockovich," ''Contagion" and "Reno 911!"
Activision unveiled plans in November to create and release its own TV and film series based on its games. In recent years, Ubisoft and Microsoft similarly launched divisions that were tasked with adapting game franchises to varying degrees of success.
"Activision Blizzard does not release a game unless it's great, so it's not a big leap to take that culture and migrate it to this endeavor," said Sher. "I think that's a sensibility that we all share."
Activision's first project is slated to be a TV show inspired by the kid-friendly "Skylanders" toy-game franchise, followed by films based on the "Call of Duty" military shooter series.
Could a filmmaker like Tarantino or Soderbergh direct a "Call of Duty" movie? Sher and van Dye aren't ruling out the possibility.
"Between the quality of our intellectual property and Stacey's relationships, I think we're going to have amazing talent to work with," said van Dye.
Sher and van Dye said they plan to keep the studio small and maintain creative control over projects, similar to Pixar and Lucasfilm. While most video game adaptations haven't been financially or critically well received, they believe they can overcome the genre's flop-filled past.
"We understand our intellectual property, fans and the universes better than anyone else," said van Dye. "The creative sensibility that's involved in making great games is orthogonal to the creative sensibility needed to make great films and TV. By having the right skill set and controlling intellectual properties, rather than turning them over to third parties, we can ensure creative excellence."
Van Dye and Sher said they're currently working on the vision for an interconnected "Call of Duty" film series. However, they first need to find office space. Activision Blizzard Studios won't be housed in the company's headquarters in Santa Monica, California.
NEW YORK (AP) — Fast food is becoming a dirty term.
As smaller players challenge fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King, they're fighting to set themselves apart by describing their food as "fast-casual," ''fine casual," ''fast crafted" and even "fan food." That's even though they follow the same basic format: People standing in a line to order and pay a cashier for their food.
The new phrases are being embraced as companies try to position their offerings as fresher or higher quality to distance further their menu items from the stigma that fast food is greasy, cheap and unhealthy.
Even traditional fast-food chains acknowledge they have an image problem. McDonald's Corp. has said it wants to transform into a "modern, progressive burger company." And Yum CEO Greg Creed has noted the need for the company's Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut chains to redefine the meaning of fast food, which is seen as industrial and impersonal.
In the meantime, others are cooking up phrases to telegraph that they are anything but fast food.
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. and Panera Bread Co. are widely referred to in the industry as "fast casual" chains, a term meant to convey that they serve dishes that are in line with what people might find at a casual, sit-down restaurant. Shake Shack, the New York City-based burger chain, took it a step further last year when it declared itself to be "fine casual."
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Shake Shack explained: "Fine casual couples the ease, value and convenience of fast casual concepts with the high standards of excellence in thoughtful ingredient sourcing, preparation, hospitality and quality grounded in fine dining."
Even Arby's, whose food has been mocked on The Daily Show by former host Jon Stewart, is trying to change its image and has started calling itself "fast crafted."
Chris Fuller, a spokesman for Arby's, said the chain came up with description after holding "Brand Camp" meetings with employees around the country in 2014. Workers were given cards with the names of restaurant chains, and told to lay them out in order, with "fast-food" representing one end and "fast casual" representing the other end. Arby's always fell somewhere in the middle, Fuller said.
As a result, he said the chain realized it offered the convenience of fast-food, but also offers "that made-for-your care" with its sandwiches.
When asked how he thought Stewart might react if he were still on The Daily Show, Fuller said: "I think he would come up with his own term, but I'm sure he would have some fun at our cost."
Arby's isn't alone, of course. Del Taco says it considers itself to be "QSR-plus," a reference to the industry term "quick service restaurant" that's used to refer to fast-food. And Dairy Queen's tag line is "Fan Food Not Fast Food."
Allen Adamson, founder of BrandSimple Consulting, said the trend shows the term fast-food has become the "death star" of the industry.
Adamson noted there was a time when the idea of getting food quickly was a unique concept, but that restaurants can no longer rely on speed alone to attract customers.
"Everything can be fast today. What you want to communicate is something more desirable," he said.
BOSTON (AP) — Shipping containers have been turned into housing, art, even playgrounds. Now, a Boston company is recycling them into high-tech mobile farms as part of a new wave of companies hoping to bring more innovation to agriculture.
Freight Farms and other indoor agriculture companies are looking to meet the growing demand for high-quality, locally grown and sustainable produce by farming fruits and vegetables in non-traditional spaces such as warehouses, industrial buildings and containers.
They're using hydroponics and other longstanding methods to grow plants without soil and incorporating technology that automates much of the work and reduces waste.
"The food system needs to be designed around technology and equipment that's available today," says Brad McNamara, Freight Farms' CEO and co-founder. "It was designed 100 years ago without the right technology to reach the level that it needs to. The whole system needs to be modernized."
The company says its Leafy Green Machine helps farmers produce a consistently bountiful crop — roughly the typical yield of an acre of farmland — while using 90 percent less water, no pesticides, and just 320 square feet of space.
Climate controls, automated lighting and irrigation systems, and mobile apps for monitoring and maintaining crops remotely also allow farmers to grow year-round with minimal oversight.
"Starting a farm is a lot to ask of one person," says company president and co-founder Jon Friedman. "So we've put together a system that gives even a novice the tools to produce thousands of plants and get them to market."
So far, Freight Farms customers say the benefits outweigh the costs, which include the $82,000 base price for the 2016 model, as well as an estimated $8,000 to $16,500 a year in electricity, water and growing supply costs.
"The beauty of the Freight Farm is in its ease of use and its mobility," says Thomas LaGrasso III, chief operating officer at LaGrasso Bros., a Detroit produce wholesaler that's been growing lettuce in its unit since September. "We harvest to meet our customers' daily needs. You cannot have it any fresher."
Launched in 2010, Freight Farms is considered a pioneer of container farms. About a half-dozen other companies in the U.S. offer them, including CropBox in Clinton, North Carolina; Growtainers in Dallas; and PodPonics in Atlanta.
Freight Farms has sold 54 Leafy Green Machines, with ones already in operation on Google's campus in Mountain View, California; Stony Brook University on Long Island; and Four Burgers, a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Most Freight Farm customers are growing high turnover, compact crops the company recommends — lettuce; hearty greens like kale, cabbage and Swiss chard; and herbs like mint, basil and oregano — and selling them to local restaurants and groceries and at community markets, according to McNamara and Friedman.
Jon Niedzielski, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in Massachusetts, says his office has already approved a handful of loans to farmers using Freight Farms' containers.
"Efficient, hydroponic systems that need little open space can make a lot of sense, particularly in urban areas with lots of potential consumers willing to pay top dollar, year-round, for lettuce and herbs," he says.
Industry experts caution that upfront costs and annual operational expenses like electricity for lighting systems that often run 18 hours a day can mean slim profit margins for would-be farmers.
But they also suggest technological advances are helping make indoor growing more feasible.
"I think it will take some development to make these systems truly sustainable," says Andrew Carter, an urban agriculture consultant in New York and North American region manager for the Germany-based Association for Vertical Farming. "But I'm a firm believer in indoor agriculture and small-scale growing and think it will supply healthy, sustainable, and local food."
Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/philip-marcelo
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Playboy Mansion is up for sale but longtime resident Hugh Hefner wants to stay put.
Playboy Enterprise announced the West Los Angeles estate, the backdrop of many film shoots and wild parties, was listed on Monday for $200 million.
The 5-acre property features 29 rooms, a game house, home theater, wine cellar and the famous swimming pool with a cave-like grotto where Playboy bunnies partied with celebrities. The mansion also comes with a rare zoo license.
As a condition of the sale, magazine founder Hefner would get to continue living there as he has since the company bought the mansion 45 years ago for just over $1 million, company spokesman John Vlautin said.
The sale comes as Playboy, which has been has seen its circulation plunge as it competed with more sexually explicit magazines and online porn, seeks to reinvent itself. In October, the magazine that helped launched the sexual revolution, announced that it will stop running photos of completely naked women in its U.S. print edition. The move followed a decision in August 2014 to ban full nudity on its website.
Playboy CEO Scott Flanders says the sale would help the company "reinvest in the transformation of our business" while allowing the 89-year-old Hefner to continue living there.
"The Playboy Mansion has been a creative center for Hef as his residence and workplace for the past 40 years, as it will continue to be if the property is sold," Flanders said in a statement.
Hefner originally named a home he bought in Chicago in 1959 the Playboy Mansion, but he eventually made the Los Angeles estate, which he dubbed Playboy Mansion West, his permanent home.
WASHINGTON (AP) — A scary sell-off in Chinese stocks is magnifying concerns about the health of the world's second-biggest economy.
The Shanghai Composite Index on Thursday tumbled 7 percent in 30 minutes before trading was suspended. The damage quickly rolled around the world: Stocks plunged in Tokyo, Hong Kong, London and New York. The Dow Jones industrial average finished Thursday down a steep 2 percent. On Friday, the Shanghai Index closed up 2 percent.
China's stock markets have little connection to the rest of its economy. A big reason Chinese shares are sinking is that Beijing is trying to undo some of the measures it took to prop up stock prices after the Shanghai market collapsed in June. Yet China watchers say there are reasons to worry about the Chinese economy.
A WEAKENING CURRENCY
The Chinese government alarmed world markets in August by suddenly pushing down its currency, the yuan, by about 2 percent. Pessimists feared that the devaluation signaled desperation: Maybe Beijing had grown so worried about the country's economic prospects that it had decided to give its exporters more help by lowering the yuan's value, which makes Chinese products more affordable in foreign markets.
The government said it was merely responding to signals from the market: The yuan, closely linked to a surging U.S. dollar, had risen too high. After the August devaluation, the yuan stabilized for three months. Then it started sinking again. It's dropped more than 4 percent against the dollar since the end of October. On Thursday, the yuan hit its lowest level against the dollar since 2011.
The Chinese economy has been "weakening for years," says Derek Scissors, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "That hasn't changed. What has changed is they pushed the yuan down.
"There's a heightened risk that the Chinese are going to be more aggressively predatory on trade," he said. "Everybody who competes with China — their profits are now in jeopardy."
Scissors says he thinks the Chinese authorities are actually just catching up with reality, not trying to give their companies an unfair edge. The yuan, he says, is still overvalued.
"If you left it alone, it would probably fall another 5, 6, 7, 8 percent," says Yukon Huang, senior associate at the Carnegie Asia Program.
Chinese authorities want to keep the yuan from going into free-fall. But investors who fear that the currency has further to fall are likely to sell investments that are denominated in yuan, thereby putting further downward pressure on China's currency and stocks.
A TOUGH TRANSITION
China's economic slowdown is partly deliberate. The country's super-charged growth of the past quarter-century was built largely on massive investment in real estate and factories, much of it increasingly wasteful and inefficient.
The government is trying to guide the economy toward slower but more sustainable growth built on spending by Chinese consumers. It's also nudging the country away from overdependence on manufacturing toward more reliance on services industries.
Overhauling a sprawling and enormously complex economy was always going to be daunting. And a report Wednesday, seized on by global investors, suggested that the transition might not be going so well, at least not yet: The Caixin China General Services Index fell last month to its second-lowest level in records dating to 2005.
The index showed that far from picking up the slack from faltering manufacturers, Chinese services businesses are barely growing. Moreover, the report noted that services firms weren't hiring fast enough to offset factory layoffs.
Chinese policymakers, long admired for their stewardship of a fast-growing economy, have worsened things by communicating poorly, meddling clumsily in the markets and backsliding on reforms.
"The ongoing rout in China's stock and currency markets reflects a sharp erosion of confidence in the economic management skills of Chinese policymakers, coupled with rising concerns about the state of the economy," says Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University.
The government's heavy-handed attempts to stop a freefall in the Shanghai stock market dismayed those who had hoped China was moving toward a more open financial system. Chinese authorities banned investors from betting against stocks, suspended trading in hundreds of companies and poured money into the market. At first, the desperation measures seemed to work. Yet stocks plunged again once the government began to back away.
What's more, the authorities have repeatedly confused investors about their policy toward the yuan, thereby unnerving the markets.
"You have to explain what you're doing," Huang says. "The Chinese economic managers are not good communicators."
The uncertainty coincides with persistent doubts about China's economic statistics. Even Premier Li Keqiang has conceded that Chinese figures for economic growth are "man-made."
Officially, the Chinese economy grew about 7 percent last year. Some economists suspect the actual growth rate might be 6 percent or lower.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see it decelerate to the 4 percent range this year," says Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.