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Health Highlights: Nov. 27, 2004

Rehnquist to Miss Next Supreme Court Session Calif. Drug Treatment Program Not a Total Success Flu Pandemic Will Kill Millions, U.N. Experts Predict Cigarettes Cost Smokers, Society $40 a Pack: Study

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

Rehnquist to Miss Next Supreme Court Session

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who missed the Supreme Court's November argument session while being treated for thyroid cancer, will be absent for the December session as well, the court has announced.

The New York Times reported that Kathleen Arberg, the court's public information officer, said Rehnquist was continuing to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments as an outpatient and was meeting with his law clerks and court officials at his home. Arberg said she had no information on when the 80-year-old chief justice might return to the court.

Given the apparent seriousness of his illness, there has been widespread speculation that the chief justice will announce his retirement sometime this winter, the newspaper reported. Jan. 7 will mark his 33rd anniversary on the court.

The Supreme Court resumes Monday and will begin hearing arguments in a case that will decide whether patients in 11 states can legally use marijuana for medical reasons.

The court has to decide whether states have the power to allow the use of drugs that are banned by the federal government, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont and Washington all have laws that allow the use of medical marijuana, which can't be sold, transported across state lines or used for non-medicinal purposes.

The Bush Administration contends that such laws violate federal drug laws and that there is no medical value in marijuana.

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Calif. Drug Treatment Program Not a Total Success

California's new program that sends drug offenders to treatment instead of jail netted only mixed results in its early months, new research shows.

A UCLA study concluded that almost one third of the offenders treated under the state's Proposition 36 were arrested again on drug charges within a year, UPI reported.

Prop 36 was considered a bold move in tackling drug addiction by getting addicts help rather than letting them idle in overcrowded jails. It was also closely watched by addiction and criminal-justice experts on a national level.

One law enforcement official told the Sacramento Bee that the program lacks oversight and sanctions against individuals who volunteer for treatment but don't remain clean.

Proponents of the program, however, said Prop 36 has helped many other offenders get back on the straight and narrow. They also contended that a lack of treatment facilities was hampering its effectiveness.

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Flu Pandemic Will Kill Millions, U.N. Experts Predict

Bird flu will trigger an influenza pandemic among people that could kill up to 7 million, experts from the United Nations' World Health Organization predict.

The experts, meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, wouldn't attempt to predict a time frame, but said a pandemic was all but inevitable, according to an account from CNN. Pandemics occur when a new germ or strain emerges for which people have no immunity or vaccine. An inoculation to protect people against bird flu isn't expected until March of next year at the earliest, CNN reported.

"Even with the best case scenario the pandemic will cause a public health emergency with estimates which will put the number of deaths in the range of 2 million and 7 million," predicted Klaus Stohr of the WHO Global Influenza program.

His dire warning preceded a two-day meeting of regional experts, who plan to discuss how to prepare for the next global flu outbreak. Three pandemics occurred during the 20th century, the worst of which in 1918-19 killed as many as 50 million people worldwide, CNN said.

A deadly bird flu strain that emerged this year in Vietnam and Thailand killed 32 people and led to the slaughter of millions of chickens and other fowl throughout Asia. Experts worry that bird flu will combine with a human form of the virus to create a super strain for which people have no protection.

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Cigarettes Cost Smokers, Society $40 a Pack: Study

Smokers and society at large pay about $40 in health care costs, insurance, taxes and lost earnings for every pack of cigarettes smoked, health economists estimate from new research.

The estimate is based on lifetime costs for a person who begins smoking at age 24 and continues the habit for about 60 years, concluded researchers from Duke University and the University of Florida. Smokers themselves pay about $33 of the tab, their families $5.44 and society about $1.44 per pack, the Associated Press reported of the authors' conclusions.

The researchers studied data including Social Security earnings histories dating to 1951, the wire service said.

Ironically, the costs to society via private pensions, Social Security and Medicare are actually less than the authors would have thought, since as study co-author Frank Sloan put it, "Smokers die at a younger age and don't draw on the funds they've paid into those systems."

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