Health Highlights: June 17, 2014

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Dr. Oz Rebuked at Senate Hearing Into Fake Diet Products

Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz was raked over the coals Tuesday at a U.S. Senate hearing into the marketing of fake diet products.

Senators said Oz -- who often touts the virtues of weight-loss products on his syndicated television show -- bears a large measure of responsibility for the problem. Oz countered by saying he himself was the victim of the scammers, NBC News reported.

However, Oz's claim was dismissed by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who chairs a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection.

"I don't get why you need to say this stuff because you know it's not true," McCaskill said at the hearing, NBC News reported. "So why, when you have this amazing megaphone, why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?"

She accused Oz of playing a role in perpetuating diet scams.

"When you feature a product on your show it creates what has become known as the 'Dr. Oz Effect' -- dramatically boosting sales and driving scam artists to pop up overnight using false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products," McCaskill said.

"While I understand that your message is occasionally focused on basics like healthy eating and exercise, I am concerned that you are melding medical advice, news, and entertainment in a way that harms consumers," she added.

Oz acknowledged that he uses "flowery" language on his shows and knows that when he recommends a diet product, scammers use his words to sell bogus products, NBC News reported. The diet products he recommends give hope to people trying to lose weight, according to Oz.

"I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about on the show," he said. "I recognize that oftentimes they don't have the scientific muster to pass as fact. I have given my family these products."

The Senate hearing is a follow-up to January's Federal Trade Commission crackdown on bogus diet products, NBC News reported. Oz has a huge impact on the marketing of such products, the FTC's Mary Koelbel Engle told the hearing.

"For instance, within weeks of an April 2012 Dr. Oz Show touting green coffee bean extract as a miracle fat burning pill that works for everyone, the marketers of the Pure Green Coffee dietary supplement took to the Internet making overblown claims -- like 'lose 20 pounds in four weeks' and 'lose 20 pounds and two to four inches of belly fat in two to three months' -- for their dietary supplement," she said.

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FDA to Issue Voluntary Salt Reduction Guidelines for Food Industry

Voluntary guidelines to reduce the amount of salt in grocery and restaurant foods are being prepared for release by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The goal of the guidelines asking the food industry to lower sodium levels is to reduce the number of Americans who die from heart disease and stroke, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the Associated Press.

"We believe we can make a big impact working with the industry to bring sodium levels down, because the current level of consumption really is higher than it should be for health," she said in a recent interview.

In 2010, an Institute of Medicine report said food companies hadn't done enough to make foods less salty, and advised the federal government to set maximum sodium levels for different foods, the AP reported.

However, the FDA prefers voluntary guidelines meant to encourage food makers to gradually lower salt levels in their products in order to give them time to develop lower-sodium foods and to allow people's taste buds to adjust to the lower sodium levels.

"I think one of the things we are very mindful of is that we need to have a realistic timeline," Hamburg told the AP.

Americans consume about 3,400 milligrams (1 1/2 teaspoons) of salt a day. That's one-third more than the amount recommended for good health, and puts people at increased risk for health problems such as high blood pressure and stroke.

Most of the salt consumed by Americans comes from processed foods and restaurant meals. Along with adding flavor to foods, salt is used to prevent the growth of bacteria, increase shelf life, and improve texture and appearance, the AP reported.

While health advocates would prefer mandatory salt standards, they say voluntary guidelines are a good initial action.

However, it's possible companies may be reluctant to lower salt levels in their food products because they're worried that their competitors won't do the same, according to Michael Jacobsen, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In that occurs, "then FDA should start a process of mandatory limits," Jacobson told the AP.

A number of food makers and retailers have already moved to lower salt levels. Subway restaurants said it has reduced salt levels by 30 percent, food giant ConAgra says it made a 20 percent cut, and Wal-Mart promised a 25 percent reduction in many items by next year.

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Microwave Helmet Can Detect Strokes: Report

A helmet that uses microwaves to quickly determine whether a person has had a stroke has been developed by Swedish scientists. They said the device could speed stroke diagnosis and treatment, improving patients' chances of recovery.

The helmet bounces microwaves off the brain in order to detect bleeding or a clot. After early studies with 45 patients proved successful, the researchers gave the helmet to ambulance crews to test, BBC News reported.

"The possibility to rule out bleeding already in the ambulance is a major achievement that will be of great benefit in acute stroke care," researcher Professor Mikael Persson said.

"While this research is at an early stage, it suggests that microwave-based systems may become a portable, affordable, technology that could help rapidly identify the type of stroke a patient has had, and get them treated faster," Dr Shamim Quadir, of the U.K.'s Stroke Association, told BBC News.

"By diagnosing and treating stroke as early as possible, we can minimize the devastating impact of stroke, secure better outcomes for patients and, ultimately, save lives. Time lost is brain lost," Quadir said.

The research was reported in the journal Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.

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Tobacco Companies Introducing Electronic Cigarettes

Big tobacco companies are jumping into the rapidly expanding and lucrative e-cigarette market.

On Tuesday, a subsidiary of Reynolds American (known for Camel cigarettes) will announce that it will begin distributing its Vuse e-cigarettes across the United States on June 23, The New York Times reported.

A subsidiary of Altria (known for Marlboro cigarettes) will introduce its MarkTen e-cigarettes by the end of the year.

Reynolds plans a national marketing plan for its new e-cigarettes, including television ads in major markets. Critics fear that tobacco makers' ads for their e-cigarettes could glamorize smoking and lead people to start smoking, The Times reported.

A Senate hearing on the marketing of e-cigarettes is scheduled for Wednesday.

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Pregnancy Tests To Be Offered in Alaskan Bars

Some bars and restaurants in Alaska will have pregnancy tests available in their women's bathrooms in an effort to reduce rates of birth defects linked to alcohol.

The state has the nation's highest rate of fetal alcohol syndrome, which causes brain damage and growth problems in children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy, NBC News reported.

About 180 babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome in Alaska each year. The rate of binge drinking among women of child-bearing age in the state is 20 percent higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In December, the state government will place free pregnancy tests in 20 bars and restaurants.

"A woman who is in a bar can go into the bathroom and have a free pregnancy test, completely private, no forms to fill out," said state Sen. Pete Kelly, who proposed the two-year, $40,000 program, NBC News reported.

He believes the tests will encourage women to "do the responsible thing" and avoid alcohol if they discover they're pregnant.

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