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Health Highlights: May 17, 2005

Employers Pay Obese Workers Less, Report Confirms Tobacco Products Still Shine in Teen Movies Combo Pill Works for Hypertension Herb May Help Cut Alcohol Intake Rural Cell Phone Users Have Higher Incidence of Brain Tumors: Study Antibiotic May Prevent Traveler's Diarrhea

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

Employers Pay Obese Workers Less, Report Confirms

Obese employees in the United States may be receiving slimmed-down paychecks because employers are compensating for expected higher health costs incurred by those workers, according to a Stanford University study.

While previous research found that obese workers get paid less than other workers, this study found it to be true only in workplaces with employer-paid health insurance, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

"We view this as evidence that the higher expected expense of obese people is being passed along in the form of lower wages," study co-author Kate Bundorf, assistant professor of health research and policy, told the Chronicle.

She and her colleagues found that obese workers with health coverage were paid an adjusted average of $1.20 less per hour than non-obese workers, starting in 1989. That average wage gap continued to widen and was $2.58 in 1998.

The study also found that obese people had yearly medical expenses that were $732 higher, on average, than non-obese people.

The researchers used U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The study was published as a working paper on the Web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, a non-profit research organization based in Massachusetts.

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Tobacco Products Still Shine in Teen Movies

Even though tobacco companies in the United States agreed seven years ago to stop paying for their tobacco brands to appear in movies, there hasn't been a significant decrease in the rate of tobacco brand appearances in PG-13 rated movies, says a Dartmouth Medical School study.

Researchers analyzed the number of tobacco brand appearances in 400 movies released from 1996 to 1999, before the tobacco companies signed the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) in 1998, and 400 movies released from 2000 to 2003.

Overall, there was a marked decline in the number of tobacco brand appearances in R-rated movies after the MSA was signed. However, almost 1 in 8 movies rated PG-13 released from 2000 to 2003 still featured tobacco brand appearances, according to the findings published in the May 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The ratings piece was a big surprise," study lead author Dr. Anna Adachi-Mejia, instructor in pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School, said in a prepared statement.

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Combo Pill Works for Hypertension

A pill that combines two drugs for hypertension provided significant benefit for people with hard-to-control high blood pressure, says a multi-center study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and 118 other sites.

The research involving more than 700 people found that 18 weeks of treatment with the combination pill of irbesartan (an angiotensin II receptor blocker) and hydrochlorothiazide (a diuretic) reduced systolic blood pressure to a desirable level in 77 percent of the study participants, and cut diastolic pressure to acceptable levels in 83 percent of the patients.

Systolic blood pressure is the top number in a blood pressure reading and is more difficult to bring down than diastolic blood pressure.

"The percentage of patients whose blood pressure was controlled in this study was much higher compared to other combination therapy trials," Dr. Elijah Saunders, one of the study's two principal investigators and professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

The study was funded by the Bristol-Myers Squibb/Sanofi-Synthelabo Partnership, which makes the combination pill used in the study. The findings were presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Hypertension in San Francisco.

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Herb May Help Cut Alcohol Intake

An invasive vine called kudzu may help reduce alcohol intake and curb binge drinking, says new research in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The U.S. study of 14 men and women found that those who took capsules of kudzu drank an average of 1.8 beers per session, compared with 3.5 beers per session drunk by those who took a placebo, the Associated Press reported.

Researcher Scott Lukas of the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital wasn't sure why kudzu seemed to reduce alcohol intake. It may be because kudzu increases blood alcohol levels and speeds up alcohol's effects, meaning that the people who took kudzu needed fewer drinks to feel drunk, Lukas suggested.

"That rapid infusion of alcohol is satisfying them and taking away their desire for more drinks. That's only a theory. It's the best we've got so far," Lukas told the AP.

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Rural Cell Phone Users Have Higher Incidence of Brain Tumors: Study

The incidence of brain tumors was far higher among rural Swedish cell phone users who used the Global System for Mobile Communication (GSM) network than among urban GSM users and rural non-users, says a new study.

The findings are troubling, the study authors noted. However, the amount of data collected in the study is low and further research is needed, the Swedish researchers said.

It may be possible that cell phones in rural areas deliver a higher dose of electromagnetic radiation because they must transmit a stronger signal to distant transmission towers, according to the study, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

In urban areas, these transmission towers are closer together. The study said that means that cell phones used in urban areas don't need to send as strong a signal and deliver a lower dose of electromagnetic radiation to the user, Forbes reported.

In recent years, a number of studies have suggested a higher risk of brain tumors among people who are frequent and long-term cell phone users. However, many scientists have said there's no evidence to support claims that cell phones pose a health risk.

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Antibiotic May Prevent Traveler's Diarrhea

The antibiotic rifaximin, which is used to treat traveler's diarrhea, may also be able to prevent it without causing antibiotic resistance, says a University of Texas study published Tuesday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study of 210 American students studying Spanish in Guadalajara, Mexico found that rifaximin prevented traveler's diarrhea in 85 percent of the students who took the antibiotic for two weeks, the Associated Press reported.

About 54 percent of the students who took a placebo came down with traveler's diarrhea.

The researchers said that rifaximin has properties that help stop germs becoming resistant to antibiotics, which can happen with overuse, the AP reported. The drug was just approved last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for traveler's diarrhea.

The study received funding from Salix Pharmaceuticals, which markets rifaximin under the brand name Xifaxan. Some of the researchers on this study have worked as consultants for Salix.

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