Health Highlights: March 8, 2012

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

Boost Efforts to Prevent Youth Smoking: Surgeon General

Smoking bans and higher taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products should be used to increase the effort to stop young Americans from using tobacco, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's report on tobacco, which was released Thursday.

The 920-page document noted that stopping young people from using tobacco is vital because people who start smoking as teens are at increased risk for long-term addiction, and can rapidly develop such health problems as reduced lung function and early heart disease, the Associated Press reported.

More than 80 percent of U.S. smokers begin the habit by age 18, and 99 percent of adult smokers start by age 26, according to the new report.

"In order to end this epidemic, we need to focus on where we can prevent it and where we can see the most effect, and that's with young people," Surgeon General Regina Benjamin told the AP. "We want to make our next generation tobacco-free, and I think we can."

The report is the surgeon general's office's first detailed overview of youth tobacco use in nearly two decades. It recommended anti-smoking campaigns and increased restrictions under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's power to regulate tobacco as ways to reduce tobacco use among adolescents and young adults.

Since the 1994 surgeon general's report on the issue, smoking among high school students had declined from 27.5 percent to 19.5 percent. However, the rate of decline has slowed in recent years, the AP reported.

Currently, about three million high school students and 600,000 (5.2 percent) middle school students smoke. Each day in the United States, more than 3,800 people younger than 18 have their first cigarette -- and more than 1,000 of them become daily smokers, according to the report.

Smoking is responsible for 1,200 deaths a day across the country, the AP reported.


FDA Mulls Making Key Prescription Drugs Available Over-the-Counter

A number of widely used prescription drugs could be sold over-the-counter under a new proposal being considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The agency is thinking about eliminating prescription requirements for certain drugs used to treat such conditions as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and migraine, the Associated Press reported.

FDA officials said making it easier for patients to obtain these medications could help tackle undertreated health epidemics such as diabetes, which is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke.

More than 25 million Americans have diabetes, but about 7 million have not been diagnosed and therefore do not receive treatment.

The move to make certain prescription medications available over-the-counter is being driven by computer technology, such as touch-screen kiosks in pharmacies, which helps patients self-diagnose common diseases, according to the AP.

It's one of several FDA proposals meant to improve patient access to established drugs or to accelerate approval of experimental medications.

"These are discussions that need to start happening as we think about people's health needs and how to improve access," said FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the AP reported.


Prices of Seniors' Drugs Rise Nearly 26 Percent: Report

The cost of medicines used by many older Americans increased nearly 26 percent between 2005 and 2009, according to an AARP report.

The increase was nearly twice the rate of inflation, according to the analysis of the retail prices of 514 brand name and generic drugs most commonly used by Medicare recipients, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

While the prices of generic drugs fell nearly 31 percent during the study period, the prices of brand name drugs rose by nearly 41 percent, and the prices of specialty drugs increased by more than 48 percent, AARP said.

In comparison, the rate of inflation grew by just over 13 percent between 2005 and 2009, the Times reported.

Drug industry officials criticized the AARP study, and said the increased availability of generic drugs has slowed the increase in drug prices in recent years, the newspaper reported.

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