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Health Highlights: May 20, 2004

Bill Would Give FDA Jurisdiction Over Tobacco U.S. Sees Less Risky Youth Behavior Seniors Accuse Drugmakers of Conspiracy Mass. Health Officials Irked by 'Candy' Cigarettes Medicare Commercials Broke Law, GAO Says Maker Withdraws Controversial Antidepressant

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

Bill Would Give FDA Jurisdiction Over Tobacco

A bipartisan bill introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate would give the Food and Drug Administration the authority it has long sought to regulate tobacco products.

The idea behind the bill is to give the FDA jurisdiction over the marketing and manufacturing of tobacco so young people won't take up the habit.

"Many consumers, including smokers, are surprised to learn that no federal agency has the authority to require tobacco companies to list the ingredients that are in their products -- things like trace amounts of arsenic, formaldehyde, and ammonia," Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a co-sponsor, said in a statement. "Today we are taking a step toward reducing the number of children who begin to smoke. We are taking a step toward limiting the kinds of advertisements directed at our children. And we are taking a step toward finally giving the FDA the authority to fix the problem of youth smoking."

The FDA has long argued that it should have the power to regulate tobacco as a drug. In 2000, however, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the agency had no legal right to do so. "An administrative agency's power to regulate in the public interest must always be grounded in a valid grant of authority from Congress," the court ruled.

The bill would allow the FDA to force tobacco companies to list all ingredients in their products. The agency would also have the power to mandate stronger labels, control the advertising of tobacco, and end tactics that target youth.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the other sponsor, said in a statement that "there is an excellent chance of enacting this bill this year." It would be coupled with a bill providing relief to tobacco farmers, he said, but "most importantly, it is the right thing to do for America's children."


U.S. Sees Less Risky Youth Behavior

American youth still engage in risky behavior that can make them sick or injured, but a new report finds "significant" improvement in the last 12 years.

High school students are smoking and drinking alcohol less, fighting less often, having sex less often, and are likelier to use a condom if they do, according to the report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"These trends show we are making progress in reaching our youth about positive health choices," Dr. George Mensah, acting director of CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, said in a statement.

Officials compared statistics from 2003 and 1991 and found these highlights:

  • 47 percent of students reported ever having sexual intercourse in 2003, compared to 54 percent in 1991;
  • 63 percent of sexually active students used a condom the last time they had intercourse, compared to 46 percent in 1991;
  • the rate of current cigarette smoking, which had increased from 28 percent in 1991 to 36 percent in 1997, dropped to 22 percent in 2003;
  • and the rate of those who had ever drunk alcohol dropped to 75 percent in 2003, compared to 82 percent in 1991.


Seniors Accuse Drugmakers of Conspiracy

A group representing senior citizens in Minnesota sued nine drug manufacturers on Wednesday, charging that the companies conspired to keep drug prices high by trying to halt Canadian imports.

CBS News reported that the Minnesota Senior Federation's lawsuit represents a new tactic in trying to make it easier to import the cheaper drugs from Canada. The suit seeks class-action status.

"We have three branches of government that can change things," Peter Wyckoff, executive director of the federation, told the network. "This is the third."

The suit alleges that Pfizer Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, Abbott Laboratories, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Eli Lilly and Co., Merck & Co. Inc., Novartis, and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals acted together to block the supplies of brand-name drugs to Canadian pharmacists who sell to U.S. citizens.

A GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman told CBS that the company acted alone to preserve the Canadian supplies for Canadians. Pfizer said importing drugs is dangerous and illegal.


Mass. Health Officials Irked by 'Candy' Cigarettes

Massachusetts health officials are calling on tobacco companies to halt the marketing and sale of candy-flavored cigarettes, alleging that the products lure young people to smoke.

The Boston Herald reported that Christine Ferguson, the state's Department of Public Health Commissioner, will ask the National Association of Attorneys General to look into whether those cigarettes are in violation of the huge tobacco settlement the companies signed with 46 states in 1998. That pact outlawed marketing tobacco directly or indirectly to young people.

"It smells like this stuff is candy," the Herald quotes Ferguson as saying. "They are going to really push the envelope to see how close they come to marketing to kids."

According to the newspaper, Brown & Williamson rolled out a new type of Kool candy-like cigarettes in March, under the names of "Midnight Berry" and "Mocha Taboo." Along with the introduction came hip-hop ads. R.J. Reynolds started the trend with its "Exotic Blends" line, with one named "Midnight Madness."


Medicare Commercials Broke Law, GAO Says

Bush administration TV ads to promote changes in Medicare's prescription drug coverage broke two federal laws because they were disguised as news reports but didn't identify who was sponsoring them, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress has ruled.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) said the ads, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, did not make it clear that the announcers were paid by HHS and weren't real correspondents, the Washington Post reported.

The GAO's 16-page opinion says the ads violated a federal law that bars the use of federal funds for propaganda, and a separate statute that covers unauthorized use of federal monies. The ruling doesn't carry legal weight, however.

Separately, new research finds that Medicare is paying an average of 8.4 percent more to people enrolled in private insurance plans that those enrolled in the typical Medicare plan. The Commonwealth Fund's conclusions appear to conflict with the intent of Congressional legislators, who recently introduced private insurers into the Medicare mix in an attempt to encourage competition and ultimately save the system money.


Maker Withdraws Controversial Antidepressant

The maker of the controversial antidepressant Serzone (nefazodone) said it's withdrawing the drug from the U.S. market, blaming declining sales rather than acknowledging claims that the drug could cause liver failure.

A Bristol-Meyers Squibb spokesman denied to the Associated Press that the company was responding to a growing number of lawsuits over dozens of cases of liver failure and injury, including at least 20 deaths. He confirmed that distribution of the drug to wholesalers would end June 14.

Last spring, the consumer group Public Citizen sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in an attempt to force the agency to order the drug's withdrawal. Public Citizen told the wire service that the suit would proceed, noting that generic versions of Serzone were available.

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