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Health Highlights: March 25, 2014

Health Highlights: March 25, 2014

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

Supreme Court to Hear Birth Control Coverage Lawsuit

The rights of women to use birth control of their choice versus the religious rights of employers are at the center of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments in a lawsuit launched by two family-owned companies that oppose having to include coverage for certain contraceptives in their health plans as part of the Affordable Care Act's preventive care requirement, the Associated Press reported.

Under the health reform law, sometimes called Obamacare, health plans must offer at no extra charge all forms of birth control that have been approved by federal regulators. Nearly 50 companies have launched lawsuits because they don't want to pay for all forms of birth control.

The two companies in this case before the Supreme Court this week are willing to cover most types of birth control, but not drugs or devices that work after an egg has been fertilized.

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. is owned by the Green family, who are evangelical Christians. The company -- which has more than 15,000 full-time workers in more than 600 stores in 41 states -- and the Green family say their "religious beliefs prohibit them from providing health coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices that end human life after conception," the AP reported.

The other company involved in the case is Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. of Pennsylvania, which is owned by a Mennonite family. The company makes wood cabinets and has 950 employees.

The contraceptive methods opposed by the companies included the emergency contraceptives Plan B and ella, and two intrauterine devices (IUDs).

If these companies prevail, their female employees would have to make decisions about birth control based on cost, instead of what's best for their health, according to the Obama administration.

Research shows that nearly one-third of women would switch the type of birth control they use if cost weren't an issue, according to supporters of the government's contraception coverage rules. An IUD can cost up to $1,000.

If the two companies win this lawsuit, then employers nationwide would be able to use religious objections under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act to avoid other laws, including those covering minimum wage, immunizations and Social Security taxes, according to the Obama administration.

Other lawsuits challenging the birth control coverage provision of the health care law have been launched by religiously affiliated colleges, hospitals and charities, the AP reported.

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Poor Americans More Likely to Smoke: Study

The overall smoking rate in the United States is falling, but poor and working-class people are far more likely to smoke than wealthier ones, according to a new study that analyzed federal government data from 1996 to 2012.

It revealed that affluent counties across the U.S. showed the largest and fastest decreases in smoking rates, while declines in the poorest counties have stalled, The New York Times reported.

For example, in wealthy suburbs of Washington, only about 10 percent of residents smoke, compared with nearly 40 percent of people in poor locations such as Clay County in eastern Kentucky.

The disparity among women is particularly severe, with large declines in smoking rates occurring in about half of all high-income counties, but only four percent of poor counties, The Times reported.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and the widening difference in smoking rates between poor and rich Americans is contributing to inequality in health outcomes, according to experts.

"Smoking is leaving these fancy places, these big urban areas," Ali Mokdad, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and an author of the study, told The Times. "But it has remained in these poor and rural areas. They are getting left behind."

The study was published Monday in the online journal Population Health Metrics.

The findings show that poor and working-class people need to be a major focus of anti-smoking programs, according to Michael Eriksen, dean of the school of public health at Georgia State University. He led the federal Office on Smoking and Health under President Bill Clinton.

"The real conclusion here is we need to figure out clever ways to reach these groups," Eriksen told The Times. "The effort has been pitiful so far compared to the potential benefit to society from getting these people to stop smoking."

Helping poor and working-class smokers, who often have other problems such as mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse, would help reduce the large financial impact that smoking has on the nation's health care system, experts say.

The overall smoking rate among American adults fell 27 percent since 1997, but decreased by just 15 percent among poor people, according to a separate New York Times analysis of health survey data from the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

They represent 40 percent of the U.S. population, but people with a high school education or less account for 55 percent of the nation's 42 million smokers, the analysis showed.

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Canadian Patient Does Not Have Ebola

Ebola has been ruled out in the case of a man who became ill and was hospitalized after a trip to West Africa.

The man tested negative for Ebola and he is undergoing further tests, said a World Health Organization spokesman, who added that the patient may have malaria, CNN reported.

The man, who is critically ill and isolated in an intensive care unit at a Saskatoon, Sask. hospital, recently traveled to Liberia. That country is next to Guinea, where an Ebola outbreak has killed at least 59 people.

"There is no risk to the general public at all about this incident. We recognize that there's going to be a fair amount of concern, and that's why we wanted to go public with this as soon as possible and dispel some of those myths that are out there," Denise Werker, deputy chief medical health officer at the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health, told reporters Monday, CNN reported.

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Air Pollution Claimed 7 Million Lives in 2012: WHO

Air pollution killed about seven million people worldwide in 2012, and more than half of those deaths were caused by indoor smoke from cook stoves, a World Health Organization report says.

The U.N. health agency said that heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease were the leading causes of air pollution-related deaths, CNN reported.

Of the seven million deaths caused by air pollution in 2012, 2.8 million occurred in the Western Pacific (which includes east Asia and the Pacific islands) and 2.3 million occurred in Southeast Asia. Indoor air pollution was linked to 1.7 million of the deaths in Southeast Asia.

WHO said that about three billion people worldwide use wood, coal and open-air fires for household cooking, CNN reported.

"Few risks have greater impact on global health today than air pollution: the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe," Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO's Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said in the report.

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U.S. Navy May Ban Tobacco Sales

Tobacco sales on all U.S. Navy bases and ships could soon be banned, the The Navy Times reports.

There have been discussions about tobacco sales but no decision has been made, according to Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty.

If the Navy does eliminate tobacco sales on its ships and bases, it's likely that other branches of the military would do the same, one source told The Navy Times.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus "has implemented a number of initiatives to improve the culture of fitness in the Navy and Marine Corps, and curbing tobacco use is part of that improvement," Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence, a spokeswoman for Mabus, said in a written statement.

 
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