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Health Highlights: July 1, 2007

Massachusetts Mandates Health Insurance for All England's Smoking Ban Goes Into Effect New Mexico to Begin 'Unique' Medicinal Marijuana Program China Promises to Help Improve Quality of Imported Seafood Veggie Snack Recalled for Salmonella Risk

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

Massachusetts Mandates Health Insurance for All

Massachusetts on Sunday became the first state in the country to require that its 6.5 million residents have health insurance or face financial penalties.

A law approved by the legislature last year to make health insurance mandatory is aimed at reducing the ranks of the state's 400,000 uninsured and the number of people who seek costly "uncompensated" care in hospital emergency rooms, according to the Washington Post.

Although July 1 marks the beginning of the "individual mandate" -- the legal obligation to obtain health insurance -- the real deadline is Dec. 31. When Massachusetts residents file their state tax returns next spring, they must certify that they had acceptable coverage as of the end of 2007 -- or lose the $219 personal exemption, the Post report said.

Businesses with at least 11 full-time employees that do not offer health insurance must pay an annual "fair share" assessment of $295 per employee. And businesses must arrange to allow workers to pay health insurance premiums with pre-tax dollars.

And the state government, under its new Commonwealth Care program, is subsidizing coverage with no annual deductible on a sliding scale for people with incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $61,950 for a family of four.

The state's costs have some analysts wondering whether Massachusetts will be able to keep funding the $1.6 billion-a-year program if the economy slumps or if costs rise substantially over the next few years.

But if it works, the state's plan could become a model for major changes in health care across the country, the Post reported.

Democratic presidential candidates are borrowing some of its elements for their campaign platforms, and President Bush signaled last week that state experiments such as Massachusetts's will play a key role in remaking the troubled U.S. health-care system.

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England's Smoking Ban Goes Into Effect

A ban on smoking in public buildings in England, including pubs, restaurants and even Buckingham Palace, began Sunday, the Associated Press reported.

Taxi and delivery drivers also face a £50 fine if they light up inside their cars, the wire service said.

Newly appointed Health Secretary Alan Johnson said, "A smoke-free country will improve the health of thousands of people, reduce the temptation to smoke and encourage smokers to quit."

England joins France, Spain, Italy, Iran, Norway, Sweden, Singapore, South Africa, Uruguay and New Zealand in passing federal legislation to restrict smoking. The United States has no federal policy, but some states, including New York and Florida, have imposed some of the globe's most stringent laws against smoking, the AP said.

Public smoking was already banned in the rest of the United Kingdom. Wales and Northern Ireland instituted the ban in April and Scotland did so last year. The Republic of Ireland made the move three years ago.

Despite the bans, the World Health Organization predicts there will be an additional 2 billion smokers worldwide by 2030, the wire service said.

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New Mexico to Begin 'Unique' Medicinal Marijuana Program

New Mexico is getting into the marijuana business.

Beginning Sunday, New Mexico joins 11 other states that protect from prosecution those who use marijuana medicinally. But, as the Associated Press reports, there's an added irony in this particular law: The state will be required to grow and distribute the marijuana used for medical purposes.

There is a reason for this, the wire service reports. State health officials want to make sure that the cannabis being used meets the standards for medical treatment. Marijuana is often used by those suffering from diseases that cause pain, and also by those whose treatment brings about nausea and depression.

The New Mexico law specifically mentions approved marijuana use for cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and HIV-AIDS, and also by some patients in hospice care.

"The long-term goal is that the patients will have a safe, secure supply that doesn't mean drug dealers, that doesn't mean growing their own," Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, told the AP

There still is one obstacle. The U.S. government doesn't recognize marijuana as a medicinal drug, so theoretically, the New Mexico employees who grow and distribute the drug could be subject to federal prosecution, the wire service reports.

The state doesn't have a specific answer for that, but Dr. Steve Jenison, who heads up the marijuana growth and distribution program for New Mexico, told the AP that it is unique and might be acceptable to the U.S. government. "The production part is unprecedented," Jenison said. "No other state law does that. So we're trying to be very thoughtful in how we proceed."

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China Promises to Help Improve Quality of Imported Seafood

The Chinese government says it will cooperate with U.S. regulators to improve the safety of food imported to the United States, but its response to the latest partial ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on imported seafood was far from humble.

Dr. David Acheson, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's assistant commissioner for food protection, on Thursday identified the banned fish as catfish, basa (similar to catfish), shrimp, dace (similar to carp) and eel, which he said may contain chemicals that are potentially carcinogenic.

The New York Times reports that the Chinese government said Friday that it would work with the United States to improve the quality of food it imports, but it urged a quick resolution and claimed that U.S. food imports to China also had quality problems. "Just like the U.S. imported food in China, there are quality problems with aquatic products that are exported to the U.S. by some Chinese enterprises," the Times quotes a statement on a Chinese government Web site.

China is the third largest importer of seafood to the United States, and the problem of quality is not a new one. "There have been problems with farmed fish products produced in China and exported to the U.S. since 2001," Margaret O' K. Glavin, FDA's associate commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, said Thursday during a teleconference. For example, in 2006, the FDA placed a countrywide alert on all Chinese eel due to residues of malachite green, Glavin said.

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Veggie Snack Recalled for Salmonella Risk

A snack called Veggie Booty is being recalled nationwide due to possible contamination with salmonella bacteria, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported.

The product, made by Robert's American Gourmet Food Inc., of Sea Cliff, N.Y., is sold in foil bags of 4-ounce, 1-ounce, and half-ounce sizes.

Consumers are urged to throw any packages of the product away. Veggie Booty is often eaten by children, and parents are urged to watch for signs of gastrointestinal illness in any youngster who has already eaten the product, the FDA advised Thursday.

The agency has had 52 reports of illness in 17 states, beginning in March. Almost all of the victims have been children under age 10, mostly toddlers. Four were hospitalized with symptoms including bloody diarrhea. The FDA said it learned of the illnesses on June 27 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is investigating the outbreak. The product also is sold in Canada.

In addition to bloody diarrhea, other symptoms of salmonella poisoning may include abdominal cramps and fever. Symptoms usually begin within four days of exposure, the FDA said.

People with weaker immune systems, including the young and elderly, are especially prone to salmonella poisoning.

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