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Health Highlights: Jan. 13, 2005

Marijuana Causes Same Respiratory Symptoms as Tobacco Check Radon Levels in Homes: U.S. Surgeon General Vending Machine Group Launches Anti-Obesity Campaign Celebrex Ads Misleading, FDA Says FDA Experts Considering OTC Cholesterol Drug Baseball, Players Reach Steroid Accord

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

Marijuana Causes Same Respiratory Symptoms as Tobacco

Smoking marijuana is associated with an increased risk of many of the same respiratory problems that afflict cigarette smokers, including shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic bronchitis, coughing and phlegm, according to new Yale University research.

The study also found that marijuana smoking may increase the risk that the respiratory system will be exposed to infectious organisms such as molds and fungi. That's because marijuana plants are contaminated with different kinds of fungal spores.

The findings were based on data collected from 6,728 adult men and women in 1988 and 1994. They appear in the current issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

"Because more than two million American adults are heavy marijuana smokers, these risks represent a potentially large health burden," study lead author Brent Moore, an assistant professor of psychiatry, said in a prepared statement.


Check Radon Levels in Homes: U.S. Surgeon General

Americans need to have their homes checked for radon, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said Thursday during a workshop on healthy indoor environments.

Carmona noted that breathing indoor radon over prolonged periods represents a significant health risk and that indoor radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the country, the Associated Press reported.

It's estimated that radon-related lung cancer kills 20,000 Americans each year. Radon is an invisible, odorless radioactive gas created by the breakdown of uranium in the soil. Radon can work its way up through the ground and into the basements of homes and other buildings.

Indoor radon levels are easy to measure. Inexpensive venting can reduce high radon levels, Carmona said.


Vending Machine Group Launches Anti-Obesity Campaign

An anti-obesity campaign designed to promote healthy food choices has been launched by a national vending machine organization in the United States.

The Balanced for Life campaign is seen as an attempt to counter efforts in many parts of the country to remove vending machines from schools. It may also help improve the vending machine industry's image at a time when there's great concern about growing numbers of overweight and obese Americans, the Associated Press reported.

The campaign, launched Thursday by the National Automatic Merchandising Association, features a color-coded rating system for food sold in vending machines. The colors help consumers identify which food items are healthy and which ones should be eaten in moderation.

The campaign will also encourage nutrition education and physical activity programs.


Celebrex Ads Misleading, FDA Says

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has asked the maker of two popular pain relievers, Celebrex and Bextra, to permanently discontinue advertisements that the agency deems misleading and unsubstantiated.

The request in a letter released Wednesday may be almost a moot point, since Pfizer Inc voluntarily withdrew the TV and print ads on its own last month. The company took the action after revealing a study that showed high doses of Celebrex were associated with an increased risk of heart attack. Bextra, also made by Pfizer, is in the same class of painkillers, known as cox-2 inhibitors.

The FDA said the ads' claims represented serious violations of federal law, the Associated Press reported. They omitted key information about the drugs' risks, wrongly claimed that the drugs were superior to other painkillers, and made unsubstantiated claims about the medications' effectiveness, the agency alleged.

A Pfizer spokeswoman acknowledged receiving the FDA's letter but would offer no additional comment. When the company pulled the ads in December, it said it planned to keep Celebrex on the market and continue to market the drug to doctors. By contrast, the maker of a once-competing painkiller, Vioxx, withdrew the drug from store shelves last fall after announcing that a new study showed Vioxx increased users' risks of heart attack and stroke.


FDA Experts Considering OTC Cholesterol Drug

An expert advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is meeting Thursday and Friday to consider Merck & Co.'s request to sell its anti-cholesterol drug without a doctor's prescription.

In its petition to the agency, Merck said Mevacor has a low risk of muscle and kidney damage, which has been identified with the class of drugs known as statins. The FDA turned down a similar request to sell the drug over-the-counter in 2000, saying the company hadn't proven that patients could safely use it without a doctor's knowledge or advice.

Supporters of the proposal say approval of OTC Mevacor would help people who can't afford to see doctors, reports the Bloomberg news service. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology last year endorsed the notion of increased use of statin drugs, Bloomberg said.

Opponents worry that selling the drug to patients directly would allow them to skip doctor visits. There is also concern that people who could have been harmed by the drug, such as pregnant women and people with liver disease, might wind up taking it despite warnings and caveats, the Associated Press reported.

Merck has cited a 26-week study known as Custom, which the company says showed Mevacor can be taken safely without a prescription. Critics of the plan say doctor visits are crucial to making other heart-healthy lifestyle changes, including increased exercise and changes in diet.


Baseball, Players Reach Steroid Accord

Major League Baseball and the players' union have reached agreement on a new steroid testing program, The New York Times reported Thursday.

Neither Major League Baseball nor the players union would disclose details of the new accord, the newspaper said. But the Associated Press reported that a first positive test would result in a suspension of up to 10 days, a second positive test a 30-day ban, a third positive a 60-day penalty, and a fourth positive test a one-year ban.

Baseball has been under pressure to approve a new policy for months, in the wake of a federal probe into an alleged steroid scheme involving a San Francisco Bay-area laboratory. Prominent players, including San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, have testified before a federal grand jury considering the case.

Critics of the earlier agreement, negotiated in 2002, say it is weak and ineffective. That deal runs through 2006, the Times said.

When players were tested anonymously for the first time in 2003, as many as 7 percent of the tests came back positive, the newspaper said. No specific results were disclosed, and no players were suspended.

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