Health Highlights: March 13, 2004

Medicare Official Ordered to Hide Costs of Drug Bill Drugmakers Abandon Research Into Antibiotics Minn. May Forbid Use of Food Stamps to Buy Junk Food New FDA Strategy to Fight Obesity Woman Charged with Murder After Birth of Stillborn Child Fizzy Drinks Increase Risk of Tooth Erosion

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

Medicare Official Ordered to Hide Costs of Drug Bill

The nation's top Medicare analyst said that he was threatened with dismissal unless he hid the spiraling costs of the newly passed Medicare drug bill from members of Congress.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the analyst, Richard Foster, chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said that the costs were $100 billion more than what Congress would have been willing to accept.

Foster alleged that Thomas Scully, at the time the centers' administrator, wrote him a note ordering him to ignore requests from members of Congress who were drafting the legislation. According to the Inquirer account, Scully's note "was a direct order not to respond to certain requests and instead to provide the responses to him and warn about the consequences of insubordination."

The threatening letter came after several oral warnings. "Sometimes he would make a comment that 'I think I need another chief actuary,' or, 'If you want to work for the Ways and Means Committee, I can arrange it.' It was that sort of thing," the newspaper quotes Foster as saying. Ways and Means was in charge of the bill.

The revelation prompted House and Senate leaders to call for an investigation. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) wrote President Bush, demanding what costs were used to push the legislation forward. Congress passed the overhaul in November and Bush signed it in December.

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Drugmakers Abandon Research Into Antibiotics

Leading U.S. drugmakers, seeking greener pastures in other drugs, are abandoning research into antibiotics at a time when patients need new medications that fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The Boston Globe reports that the drug industry, including such antibiotic pioneers as Eli Lilly and Co. and Wyeth, are putting antibiotics on the back burner in favor of newer drugs that promise bigger profits. Such drugs would fight heartburn, erectile dysfunction, depression, and other chronic illnesses and what experts call "lifestyle" complaints, the paper writes.

"Thirty years ago, antibiotics were what drug companies did," Dr. John Bartlett, chairman of the Infectious Disease Society of America's task force on antimicrobial availability, told the Globe. "Now they have a much richer portfolio, and the other drugs are more attractive."

The financial incentive is lacking to produce new antibiotics, experts say. Because patients take an antibiotic for only a few days at a time, the potential market for a new antibiotic is an estimated $200 million to $400 million in sales a year, doctors told the paper. On the other hand, Pfizer Inc. sold $9.3 billion last year of the cholesterol-lowering medication Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug.

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Minn. May Forbid Use of Food Stamps to Buy Junk Food

Minnesota officials want the U.S. government to allow the state to forbid people from using food stamps to purchase junk food such as candy bars and soda.

If Minnesota receives permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and if the move is approved by the state Legislature, it would make Minnesota the first state to implement such restrictions, the Associated Press reports.

Minnesota's Department of Human Services says a ban on using food stamps to buy junk food ban is part of an overall state effort to improve eating habits.

"It is inconsistent to encourage healthy nutrition and simultaneously allow the purchase of candy and soft drinks with food stamps," assistant commissioner Maria Gomez wrote in a letter to the federal government.

After receiving the letter, the USDA will have 60 days to respond to the request. The federal government already forbids the use of food stamps to buy tobacco or liquor, or hot foods such a rotisserie chicken, the AP reports.

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New FDA Strategy to Fight Obesity

The message that "calories count" is the focus of a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration strategy to help counter the nation's growing obesity epidemic.

The strategy, released Friday in a report by the FDA's Obesity Working Group, includes recommendations to strengthen food labeling, to encourage restaurants to provide diners with calorie and nutrition information, and to educate consumers about maintaining a healthy diet and weight.

The report also recommends increased enforcement to ensure food labels accurately portray serving size, revising and reissuing guidance on the development of obesity drugs, and strengthening coordinated scientific research to reduce obesity and to develop healthier and low-calorie foods.

"Counting calories is critical for people trying to achieve and maintain a healthy weight," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said in a prepared statement.

"This new report highlights FDA's overall strategy for getting consumers accurate, helpful information that allows them to make wise food choices at home, at supermarkets and in restaurants. Taking small steps to eat a more balanced diet and to stay physically active can go a long way to reversing the epidemic of obesity that harms far too many Americans," Thompson said.

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Woman Charged with Murder After Birth of Stillborn Child

A woman in Salt Lake City has been charged with murder because she delivered a stillborn child after she refused doctors' recommendations that she have a caesarean section.

Melissa Ann Rowland, 28, faces a first-degree felony count of criminal homicide and could be sentenced to life in prison if she's convicted, CBC News Online reports.

Prosecutors say she exhibited a "depraved indifference to human life" because she told her doctors she'd rather allow her twins to die than to have them delivered by surgery. It's alleged that during the final month of her pregnancy, Rowland was repeatedly warned by doctors that her unborn children might die if she didn't receive medical attention.

The prosecutors contend that Rowland refused immediate surgical delivery on Jan. 2, even though she was told her babies were in danger. One of the twins was stillborn when Rowland did go into labor. The surviving twin is up for adoption.

Her lawyer says Rowland is mentally ill.

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Fizzy Drinks Increase Risk of Tooth Erosion

Results of a U.K. study suggest a strong association between carbonated drinks such as soda pop and tooth erosion among children and teens.

Researchers concluded that tooth erosion was 59 percent greater in 12-year-olds and 220 percent greater in 14-year-olds who drank fizzy drinks compared to those who didn't consume such drinks, BBC News Online reports.

Drinking at least four glasses a day of carbonated beverages was associated with a 252 percent increased risk of tooth erosion in 12-year-olds and a whopping 513 percent increased risk in 14-year-olds.

The study, which surveyed more than 1,000 children and teens, appears in the British Dental Journal.

Tooth erosion, which refers to the wearing away of the enamel coating of teeth, is caused by acidic substances. Tooth decay occurs when sugar in food and drink reacts with bacteria in plaque.

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