From the Weeklies

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If you use postal services for financial transactions - there are a few things you should know. Will the highly unpopular national census, coming up shortly, be the last? And, can working night shifts really make women prone to breast cancer? Those are some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

Do you still use postal services for financial transactions? If so, then you are making a fair contribution to that institution's annual profit. Although it is easy to avoid in this day and age, lots of people still pay their bills by post. In the course of 1999 the public handed over 639 billion Czech crowns into the trustworthy hands of the Czech Postal Service - rent money, advance electricity payments, telephone bills, shopping by post and all manner of other financial transactions.

What many of them will have failed to realize is that their money will not go directly to the addressee, but will serve to add to the profit of the Czech Postal Service before being allowed to continue on its way. Interest rates is the name of the game and by channeling the incoming funds to one of its accounts for a day, a week, a fortnight or longer the Postal Service makes a nice profit without so much as lifting a finger. Last year this profit amounted to a staggering 80 billion Czech crowns.

According to Tyden Magazine, which has covered the story in an article entitled 'Profit under wraps' this enterprising little business was uncovered recently by an inspection team from the Czech Auditing Bureau and even the inspectors were shocked by the enormity of the financial transactions involved.

Basically the Czech Postal Service has been acting in the capacity of a bank without having the appropriate license. It emerged that out of the 639 billion crowns that the Post office received in payments 488 billion was channeled into the Postal Service' s banks accounts to create profit. What this amounts to is that over those 12 months every Czech - including infants - contributed 50,000 crowns each to the Postal Service's private piggy bank. It works best with things like rent which are generally due on the 15th of the month and which many people scrupulously pay well in advance. Postal service employees admit that there is a discernable trend - in the first half of the month the Postal Service accumulates funds in the second it puts them back in circulation. Few people realized how close the Postal Service came to hitting the rocks during the IPB crisis, since most of its money happened to be in that particular banking institution. Today, the bank's economic director Oldrich Cernoch says people have no reason to fear for their money - the Postal Service has allegedly divided its accounts between several banks, including foreign banks such as ING and Deutsche Bank. The practice of accumulating overnight or short term interest on money collected continues. Of course, the postal service is capable of delivering a payment within a matter of hours - Tyden says - but you need to pay an additional 80 crowns for express delivery.

The billions accumulated are invested - sometimes wisely sometimes less so. How is it possible that the Postal Service is doing big business with the money of unsuspecting clients? Mr. Cernoch says: "It's a necessity. The state is not giving us any kind of financial subsidies. In order to keep costs at their present level we have to do a bit of business ourselves."

So is this all above board? According to Tyden the team from the Czech Auditing Bureau were somewhat surprised to find that it is. What the law does not literally ban is allowed. But, even if it is, the magazine feels that readers have a right to know that payments made way in advance mean that money which could be working for you will work for someone else...

Just 15 years ago Czechs would have filled in a national census with a feeling of resignation. Back then the communist authorities kept tabs on everything.

Eleven years after the fall of communism, this society is reacting with hostility to having to reveal private data to state authorities. "The state is like a sieve - there is no way we can trust it with private data" say some, "what happens if the communists come back to power -and the state knows exactly how much property I have for it to confiscate?" counter others. " What right does the state have to know how many cars I have and how many times I'm divorced?!" and so on and so on. The complaints are endless.

As Respekt Magazine notes the Czech Statistical Office is having a hard time convincing the public that this census will serve their own best interests.

"We are not asking people to tell us what kind of cars they have - just how many they use" explains Jirina Ruzkova of the Czech Statistical Office. The information people impart will be used to help city planning, new city transport routes, the construction of homes for senior citizens and disabled people, sport stadiums and child-care centres.

One of the most criticized aspects of this census is that a private company has been commissioned to process the data. Allegedly the firm Deltax, which won the tender, will work under the supervision of special commissioners and will be monitored by cameras 24 hours a day. Other possible leak-routes are the 60,000 census gatherers who have naturally undergone some form of credibility screening. That risk too can be by-passed - the Statistical Office says - if people are not convinced their census gatherer is trustworthy they are fully entitled to hand over their census forms directly to their local administration bureau.

Having said all that the census will cost taxpayers roughly two billion crowns - so is it really ABSOLUTELY necessary ? The Netherlands discarded the practice back in 1971, and nowadays it simply combines information from different registers, plus the outcome of a public survey reflecting the living standard of approximately 2% of the population from different strata of society.

Sweden, Denmark and Norway do the same thing. So what's keeping the Czech Republic from following suit? Two things, Respekt says. Poorly kept registers and a law that does not allow information from different registers to be linked up. If our law-makers get down to work on some amendments -then a system similar to that in the Netherlands or Sweden could work in the Czech Republic in about three years' time. Hopefully, they will have motivation to do so - for some of the MPs who actually raised their hands in favour of the census in its present form, such as deputy chairman of the Lower House Ivan Langer, now say they are hesitant about how much they want to reveal - and are not even sure if they'll open the door when the census gatherer rings their doorbell. With a ten thousand crown penalty at stake not everyone will be able to afford the luxury of making one's home one's castle...

And finally, can working night shifts really make women prone to breast cancer? The recently publicized results of a Danish medical study which came to this conclusion has caused so much concern among Czech nurses and other women working night shifts that Tyden has consulted Czech cancer specialists on the matter. Jitka Abrhamova, head of the oncology department of a Prague hospital says that while the outcome of this study may be correct, excessive concern is premature, since no other independent study has confirmed the findings. The Danish study has based its findings on the state of health of 7,000 women, and claims there is an increased risk of cancer growth after a mere six months spent on night shifts. The research team is not able to say what triggers the cancer growth although there is a tentative suggestion that reduced production of the hormone melatonin may be to blame. Melatonin, which is believed to help guard the human body against cancer , is photophobic and is only formed at night. However doctors say that this hormone could easily be replaced artificially - indeed melatonin is available at chemists and health food stores.

So the question of WHETHER and in particular HOW night shifts contribute to increased cancer risk remains unresolved. Czech doctors suggest that a healthy diet, lifestyle and regular medical check-ups should be adequate prevention. As for those working night shifts, they suggest alternating them with day shifts in two or three day intervals. After all, doctors point out, in this country the number of deaths linked to cardio-vascular diseases is much higher than the number of cancer-related deaths.

Easy for them to say, Tyden notes. Cancer is still almost a mystical disease. Something many people fear to even talk about. Despite the scientific progress made, in most people's minds cancer is still linked with fear, pain and ultimately death. So any kind of survey that sounds in the least bit probable will always have a powerful impact, the weekly concludes.