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Health Highlights: July 16, 2004

Medicare Defines Obesity as an Illness U.S. Senate Votes to Let FDA Regulate Tobacco AIDS Conference Highlights Pending Threats Schering-Plough to Admit to Cheating Medicaid: Report Food Poisoning Outbreak From Mid-Atlantic Gas Stations Drugmaker Employees Acquitted in Kickback Case

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

Medicare Defines Obesity as an Illness

Medicare participants could be filing claims for diet programs and obesity treatments like stomach "stapling" surgery under a new Medicare policy that treats obesity as an illness.

"Obesity is a critical public health problem in our country that causes millions of Americans to suffer unnecessary health problems and to die prematurely," said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in announcing the new policy. He said problems linked to obesity result in billions of dollars in health-care costs, according to an account from the Associated Press.

The new policy removes language that barred consideration of obesity as an illness, which had effectively denied coverage of most weight-loss therapies, the AP reported.

The change means that remedies will now be considered on a treatment-by-treatment basis. Medicare did not provide an estimate of how much the new policy is expected to cost taxpayers, the wire service said.

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U.S. Senate Votes to Let FDA Regulate Tobacco

The U.S. Senate has passed a bill granting the federal Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco.

Thursday's 78-15 vote included affirmative votes from 43 Democrats and 35 Republicans. The proposed legislation includes a $12 billion tobacco quota buyout, about 40 percent of which would apply to North Carolina, according to the state's News & Observer newspaper.

The House passed a $9.6 billion tobacco quota buyout earlier that did not include the FDA regulation, the newspaper said. House and Senate conferees must now decide whether to include the FDA provision in final legislation to send to President Bush.

The FDA under the Clinton administration announced that it would assume control over tobacco, only to have the U.S. Supreme Court rule that Congress alone could grant that authority.

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AIDS Conference Highlights Pending Threats

The largest AIDS conference ever concluded Friday in Bangkok, Thailand, with reports detailing soaring infection rates among women and warning of explosive epidemics in Asia and Eastern Europe, the Associated Press said.

"History will surely judge us harshly if we do not respond with all the energy and resources that we can bring to bear in the fight against HIV/AIDS," Nelson Mandela, the 85-year-old former South African president, told the 15th International AIDS Conference. Speaking during the closing ceremonies, he said he "cannot rest" until the world turns the tide against the AIDS epidemic.

Mandela and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for more donations to United Nations' efforts to combat the disease. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates' foundation and the European Union announced new grants totaling $102 million, the AP reported.

Much of the six-day conference, which drew nearly 20,000 scientists, policy-makers, HIV-infected people and their advocates, focused on the problems of getting vital antiretroviral medicines to infected individuals in developing countries, especially in Africa, the news service said.

An estimated 38 million people are infected with HIV; 25 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts say nearly half of those infected are women, and their infection rates are climbing much faster than those of men in many parts of the world.

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Schering-Plough to Admit to Cheating Medicaid

The pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough is expected to plead guilty to defrauding the Medicaid program and pay a $350 million fine, The New York Times reported Friday.

Sources told the newspaper the settlement will end a six-year investigation into the company's practice, which started when three whistleblowers accused Schering-Plough of selling its products at far lower prices to private-care providers than it did to Medicaid.

Federal law mandates that drugmakers offer their lowest prices to Medicaid, the government health-care system that helps the poor.

In the settlement, expected next week in Philadelphia, Schering-Plough will admit that it gave grants to private providers to offer patient-education and marketing programs, the Times reported. The plan was to induce them to buy the drugs at high prices. In the kickback scheme, the company then billed Medicaid officials at the same high prices without offering any grants to offset the cost, the newspaper reported.

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Food Poisoning Outbreak From Mid-Atlantic Gas Stations

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning Friday about an outbreak of Salmonella poisoning, possibly in connection with deli food purchased at gas stations in several Mid-Atlantic states.

The FDA said 57 cases of salmonellosis were reported in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia between July 2 and July 9.

Officials don't know the scope of the problem. However, the cases all seem to be tied to purchases of take-out deli food at various Sheetz gas stations in those states. Sheetz stations are also located in Ohio and Virginia.

No single product has been implicated. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health are assisting the FDA in investigating the outbreak.

Salmonella is a germ that can cause fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. It is especially harmful, and can be fatal, to young children, the elderly, and the frail.

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Drugmaker Employees Acquitted in Kickback Case

A U.S. District Court jury in Boston acquitted eight current or former employees of the drug giant TAP Pharmaceutical Products of bribing and paying kickbacks to doctors in an attempt to win business for the company.

The Boston Globe reports that the verdict on conspiracy charges comes three years after TAP paid a record $885 million fine to settle similar allegations.

The employees were accused of offering ski trips, dinners, tickets to sporting events, and free drug samples to doctors. In exchange, the prosecutors said, they wanted the doctors to prescribe TAP's antacid Prevacid and the prostate cancer drug Lupron, according to the Globe account.

The defendants maintained the company's sales force was legally following -- or at least believed they were legally following -- confusing drug marketing rules.

"The government tried to put the pharmaceutical practices on trial and failed to prove that they violated any laws," the Globe quotes one defense lawyer, William Kettlewell, as saying.

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