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Health Highlights: Sept. 30, 2003

Millions More Americans Lack Health Insurance Most States Fail Women's Smoking Goals FDA Test Finds Hundreds of Illegal Imported Drugs Driving Tired is Against the Law in New Jersey Pacemakers Go Digital

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

Millions More Americans Lack Health Insurance

The ranks of Americans without health insurance rose by 2.4 million last year to 43.6 million, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The largest spike in a decade is blamed on the continuing drop in employers offering coverage, the bureau says. Although the total population grew by 3.9 million, the number of people with employer-provided coverage fell by 1.3 million to 175.3 million.

At the end of 2002, 15.2 percent of Americans had no health insurance, up from 14.6 percent in 2001. About one-third of foreign-born people lacked coverage, nearly triple that of the native born, at 12.8 percent.

Of all age groups, people 18 to 24 accounted for the largest percentage of uninsured at 29.6 percent, compared with 17.7 percent of people 25 to 64. Only 0.8 percent of people 65 and over lacked coverage, reflecting widespread participation in Medicare, the bureau says.

With fewer employers offering health coverage, it's no wonder that more Americans are worried about losing their insurance. According to the annual Health Confidence Survey released Monday, 20 percent of respondents said rising health care costs is the most important issue facing the nation today, second only to the economy at 27 percent. The survey is sponsored by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

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Most States Fail Women's Smoking Goals

Tobacco-related diseases are still the leading cause of preventable death in women, and most states don't meet the nation's goals to discourage women from smoking, according to a report released Tuesday.

Thirty-nine states earned a failing grade when judged by a list of criteria from the Department of Health and Human Services and on the strength of their tobacco control policies. The nation overall also earned a failing grade, The New York Times reports.

Among the highlights of the study, which was done by the National Women's Law Center and Oregon Health and Science University:

  • Only Utah has met the federal government's goal of reducing smoking among women to 12 percent by 2010. About 11 percent of women in Utah smoke.
  • Two states were tied for last place, Nevada and Kentucky. Almost 30 percent of the women in each state are smokers.
  • West Virginia led the list for number of pregnant smokers, 26 percent of women there smoke during pregnancy; about 25 percent do so in Kentucky.
  • Only five states have an excise tax of $1.50 or more on a pack of cigarettes, despite research showing that such taxes help reduce youth smoking.
  • California, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Vermont are the states with the strictest laws prohibiting smoking in most public indoor sites.

In the United States, 20.7 percent of all women smoke. About 26 percent of adult men are smokers, according to government figures for 2000.

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FDA Check Finds Hundreds of Illegal Imported Drugs

Almost 90 percent of imported drug parcels examined during a recent series of spot checks by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were found to contain dangerous unapproved or counterfeit medications, the FDA announced Monday.

During the three-day operation in Miami and New York City, the agency says, it examined about 100 parcels a day from countries that often send prescription drugs to the United States. Of the 1,153 imported drug products examined, 1,019 (88 percent) "were violative because they contained unapproved drugs," the agency says in a statement.

Of those shipments, 15.8 percent were from Canada, 14.3 percent from India, 13.8 percent from Thailand, and 8 percent from the Philippines.

The most common violations cited by the agency included: different versions or strengths of drugs than are approved by the FDA; drugs with inadequate labeling; drugs improperly packaged; drugs withdrawn from the U.S. market; animal drugs not approved for human use; drugs with dangerous interactions; and restricted narcotics.

The FDA crackdown follows formal declarations by the governors of Minnesota and Illinois that they intend to allow the purchase of cheaper Canadian drugs by state employees. According to recent reports, drugs purchased in Canada can cost up to 80 percent less than the American equivalents.

And on Tuesday, the mayor of Springfield, Mass., proposed that the city's employee pension fund sell its $6 million investment in pharmaceutical stocks, escalating Springfield's protest of high prescription drug costs, the Associated Press reports.

In July, the cash-strapped city became the nation's first to turn to cheaper Canadian drugs for its employee health plan. Advocates say the voluntary program for employees and retirees would allow the city to save up to $9 million. The plan works the way U.S. mail-order pharmacies do, but the orders are filled by CanaRX. About 1,100 of the 6,000 eligible employees or retirees have signed up for the option.

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Driving Tired is Against the Law in New Jersey

If you're tired and you get behind the wheel of a car in New Jersey, not only are you putting your life in danger -- you're now committing a crime.

Under the recently enacted "Maggie's Law" -- the first of its kind in the United States -- you face up to 10 years in jail and a $100,000 fine in the event of a deadly crash that was caused by sleepiness, the Associated Press reports.

No one has been charged under the law that took effect last month. It was named for a 20-year-old college student killed in 1997 by a driver who conceded having been awake for some 30 hours.

The AP cites recent surveys indicating that 51 percent of motorists sometimes feel drowsy behind the wheel, and about two of every 10 drivers admit they have fallen asleep while driving in the past year.

New Jersey is the first state to specifically list going without sleep as a crime, the AP reports. Similar legislation is being considered in New York and Washington state.

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Pacemakers Go Digital

The world's first line of fully-digital pacemakers has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Vitatron C-series features Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a technology similar to that found in digital cameras, cell phones and CD players, according to the manufacturer, Medtronic, Inc. In digital pacemakers, DSP allows doctors to monitor a patient's heart rhythm and adjust data settings almost instantaneously -- much faster than their older analog counterparts.

Pacemakers are designed for people whose hearts beat too slowly to support the needs of their circulatory systems. The condition, called bradycardia, affects more than 250,000 Americans annually with symptoms including dizzy spells, blackouts and fatigue, Medtronic says.

Medtronic's digital products were introduced in Europe in May.

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