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News brief: inflation watch, ransomware summit, e-cigarette authorization

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I don't know about you, A, but when I'm at the grocery store recently, I am getting major sticker shock in the checkout line. And I'm buying all the same stuff I usually buy.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

I've had to triple-check my receipts, make sure something wasn't rung up twice.

MARTIN: Right.

MARTINEZ: And it's not just food. Oil prices keep climbing, prices for goods like cars. Used cars are going up again. Supply chains are still a mess, which means that inflation numbers will probably still be elevated when the Labor Department offers its monthly consumer prices snapshot this morning.

MARTIN: NPR's economics correspondent Scott Horsley is watching it all, and he is with us this morning. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I'm going to start this conversation by promising not to say pain at the pump. Now that I have made this promise, why are gas prices so high?

HORSLEY: Rachel, oil prices have been on a tear lately. The U.S. benchmark topped $80 a barrel this week for the first time in almost seven years. That price is more than double what it was a year ago. And gasoline prices, which ordinarily fall this time of the year with the end of the summer driving season, have instead increased by about 7 cents a gallon just in the last week.

Now, what's driving all this is a strong rebound in demand for oil and production that's growing only modestly. You know, the Saudis and the Russians are sticking with their plan to increase output only gradually, and domestic producers are also not turning the taps wide open. That's partly the lingering effects of the hurricanes we had in the Gulf of Mexico this summer, but it's also the case that inland producers have been pretty disciplined about not flooding the market and driving down the price.

MARTIN: So gas is more expensive, so are the cars we put the gasoline in. I mean, is this still the semiconductor issue we've talked about so much?

HORSLEY: That's a big part of it. New car production continues to be hampered by that shortage of semiconductors, and so there aren't a lot of new cars to choose from on dealers' lots. The ones that are there are pretty expensive. Carmakers are using the chips they do have primarily for pricier and more profitable models. That has pushed more buyers into the used car market, and, you know, used car prices skyrocketed during the springtime. They were a big factor behind inflation for several months. It looked like that was cooling off late this summer. We saw used car prices dip a bit in August. But now the wholesale price is on the rise again, so we could see another jump in the cost of used cars, if not in today's inflation report then maybe next month.

That said, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CBS News last night she still believes higher inflation is a temporary problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS NEWS BROADCAST)

JANET YELLEN: I believe it's transitory, but I don't mean to suggest that these pressures will disappear in the next month or two.

HORSLEY: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has acknowledged these supply chain disruptions have proven to be larger and longer lasting than the central bank thought.

MARTIN: So part of the problem with the supply chains involve the ports, right? Can you explain what's going on there?

HORSLEY: Well, one big piece of news this morning - the Port of Los Angeles, which has seen record volumes of import cargoes during the pandemic, is going to announce today that they will start operating around the clock seven days a week to try to clear some of the backlog. The neighboring Port of Long Beach made a similar move several weeks ago. Between them, those two ports handle about 40% of all the container traffic into the U.S.

The White House is also announcing that major retailers and delivery companies have announced that they will shift some of their pickups at those ports to overnight and weekend hours in an effort to ease congestion. Now, of course, ports are only the gateway, so you're also going to have to see efforts by trucks and railroads and warehouses all along the chain to ease this cargo traffic jam.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott. We appreciate it.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: A pipeline operator, a meatpacker, a big city police department - they are all victims of hackers who locked up their files and held them hostage this past year.

MARTINEZ: Those security breaches are front and center for a two-day virtual summit at the White House that starts today. Representatives from more than 30 countries will try to figure out a way to take on the threat of ransomware.

MARTIN: For more, we are joined by NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Jenna, thanks for being here.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So who is showing up at this summit?

MCLAUGHLIN: So it's a big group, Rachel. You've got everyone from Eastern European countries like Ukraine and Romania to the United Arab Emirates, Brazil. The White House says that they were chosen partially because they've all had problems with ransomware, too. Ukraine, for example, is already helping hunt cybercriminals. Just a few weeks ago, the FBI partnered with international law enforcement and Ukrainian officials to arrest ransomware operators. They posted videos of piles of cash on YouTube, a classic international sting. I talked to President Biden's deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, Anne Neuberger. She says those types of arrests are top of mind this week.

ANNE NEUBERGER: One of the panels will focus on disruption. And these are exactly the kinds of efforts that we have in mind. The partners who joined us around the world are those where there is experience in criminal cyberactivity.

MCLAUGHLIN: And of course, there's the question of Russia, where lots of cybercriminals actually live. The White House says Russia isn't invited this time. They're focusing on a separate channel with Moscow for the moment, and they're seeing some progress there. But they're continuing to put pressure on them.

MARTIN: So how do these countries protect themselves? I mean, what does the Biden administration say it wants to get from these big meetings?

MCLAUGHLIN: That's a good question. The White House isn't sharing a lot about the specific agreements it hopes to reach this week. But one factor involved is helping foreign partners get better at following the money - in this case, cryptocurrency, similar to how the Justice Department a little while ago recovered $2.3 million from a bitcoin wallet for Colonial Pipeline when it got breached by criminal hackers in May.

MARTIN: Right.

MCLAUGHLIN: Additionally, while the White House says the meetings are led by the U.S., other countries are taking point on different sessions. So India is going to lead a panel on digital defense. Australia is going to take point on a discussion on disrupting criminal hackers, while the U.K. and Germany will also lead a few panels.

MARTIN: So just step back for a second, Jenna, and explain the significance of the problem of ransomware. How big is it?

MCLAUGHLIN: So Rachel, it's a huge challenge. Companies big and small could and have been victims - hospitals, towns, everyone. A recent estimate pegs payments at almost 2 million on average in 2021. And they're going after the biggest targets who are most likely to pay. And it's also not the first time that national security officials like Anne Neuberger have gotten interested in seemingly lowly criminals. So a couple years ago, the intelligence community got involved in the Sony hack because North Korea was behind it. This time, NSA Director Nakasone is saying that ransomware is a national security threat and that the government is surging against it. And you know, Anne Neuberger echoed those concerns, but she also stressed that there's strength in numbers in fighting this.

NEUBERGER: Firstly, there's always hope out there. That being said, we fight ransomware day by day, and it's something where we need many partners - American individuals, companies, partners around the world - to fight it together.

MCLAUGHLIN: And one last thing Neuberger said, you should always use multifactor authentication.

MARTIN: Oh, I am busted. I need to do that on so many different devices. NPR's cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin, thank you.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. A company that makes vaping products scores a big win.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, the FDA says a particular kind of e-cigarette can stay on the market. The authorization is the first of its kind from the Food and Drug Administration, and it comes as the FDA is still deliberating whether Juul and other e-cigarette products can still be sold.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been following this, and she joins us this morning. Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So explain the details of this decision by the FDA.

AUBREY: Sure. The FDA's been wending its way through a slew of applications from e-cigarette makers. Remember when these products first came on the market, there wasn't much regulation, so the agency has been playing catch-up. The FDA has now rejected a bunch of applications from companies that make flavored products such as apple crumble or cinnamon toast crunch cereal, these flavors clearly designed to appeal to teens. But the agency has decided to authorize a line of products called Vuse, marketed by R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company. Now, the key difference here - they are tobacco-flavored and so, in theory, are less appealing to teens. Remember, the original rationale for e-cigarettes is that they were less harmful than smoking and could help adult smokers quit. Basically, the FDA said the company submitted data to demonstrate that that is the case with these Vuse products.

MARTIN: OK. So what has the reaction been to this decision?

AUBREY: Well, there's a lot of criticism. The American Lung Association says the FDA's decision to authorize the marketing of Vuse products is troublesome. They point to a recent survey that found Vuse was the go-to brand for about 11% of high school students who vape. Another concern is that these products have a high concentration of nicotine, which is addictive. I spoke to Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He said he applauds the FDA for rejecting the flavored products, but he was critical of the agency for its decision to greenlight Vuse.

MATT MYERS: The FDA did not pay close enough attention to either the real-world experience with Vuse or the real-world experience with products that deliver this level of addiction. The most recent data show that over 40% of kids who use e-cigarettes are addicted.

AUBREY: And at a time when about 2 million kids report vaping, he says this is a problem.

MARTIN: So the FDA still has to figure out whether other e-cigarette brands like Juul can stay on the market, right? Are those decisions coming soon?

AUBREY: Yeah. A big question now is what the agency will do about menthol, which is very popular. Juul markets a menthol product, and many health organizations have asked the FDA to reject Juul's application. Here's Erika Sward of the American Lung Association.

ERIKA SWARD: We would oppose any Juul product remaining on the market. The history and their actions are clear that they're interested in addicting a new generation. And no Juul product, whether it be tobacco-flavored or menthol-flavored, should be allowed to remain on the market.

AUBREY: Now, Juul is making the case that the company is focused on helping adult smokers quit cigarettes, they're not marketing to teens. The FDA could announce a decision at any time.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey, thank you so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.