Health Highlights: Dec. 31, 2008

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

Drug Makers Agree to Voluntary Ban on Doctor 'Freebies'

The pharmaceutical industry has agreed to a voluntary moratorium on giving doctors branded items that advertise some of the country's most prescribed drugs, The New York Times reported.

Starting Jan. 1, doctors will see supplies of trinkets such as Viagra pens, Zoloft soap dispensers and Lipitor mugs cut off in a move that proponents of the moratorium say is a step toward eliminating influencing doctors' prescribing habits. But skeptics say the move is only a superficial measure, doing little to curb the far larger amounts of money that big drug companies spend to try to influence physicians.

    • Drug Makers Agree to Voluntary Ban on Doctor 'Freebies'
    • Smoking Ban Cut City's Heart Attack Hospital Admissions
    • Firm Says FDA OKs Its Generic Version of Nicotine Gum
    • Chemo Medication Errors Common in Outpatient Setting: Study

About 40 drug makers, including Eli Lilly & Company, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer have signed on to the code, the Times reported.

Drawn up by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the new code bars companies from giving doctors branded pens, staplers, flash drives, paperweights, calculators and the like, the Times said. The new guidelines reiterate the group's 2002 code, which prohibited firms from giving physicians expensive gifts such as tickets to sporting events or resort stays, and asked drug companies that finance medical courses, conferences or scholarships to let independent experts choose study materials and scholarship recipients.

In a statement, Diane Bieri, executive vice president of the manufacturers' group, said the updated guidelines were not an admission that gifts could influence doctors, but were meant to emphasize the educational nature of the industry-doctor relationship, the newspaper said.

According to the Times, big firms last year gave away almost $16 billion in free drug samples to doctors and spent an estimated $6 billion more on sales visits and other promotions.


Smoking Ban Cut City's Heart Attack Hospital Admissions

A comprehensive municipal smoking ban in effect in Pueblo, Colo., cut that city's heart attack hospital admissions rate by 41 percent over a three-year period, according to a study released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before the ordinance took effect July 1, 2003, the study said, there were 399 hospital admissions for heart attacks in Pueblo in the 18 months before the law, compared to 237 heart attack hospitalizations from 18 months to three years after implementation, the CDC reported in its publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"These findings provide support for considering smoke-free policies an important component of interventions to prevent heart disease morbidity and mortality," the report said.

The study also said evidence indicates that secondhand smoke exposure produces rapid adverse effects on heart function, blood, and vascular systems that boost the risk of a cardiac event. Eliminating smoking in indoor spaces is the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure, the study concluded.

The findings echo previous analyses that found "secondhand smoke exposure decreases substantially among nonsmoking employees of restaurants and bars and among nonsmoking adults in the general public after implementation of smoke-free laws," the study said.


Firm Says FDA OKs Its Generic Version of Nicotine Gum

Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc. said Wednesday that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had approved its generic version of the nicotine gum Nicorette, and it will begin selling the mint-flavored gum in early January.

The FDA approved the firm's over-the-counter nicotine polacrilex gum in 2 milligram and 4 milligram strengths. Nicorette, made by British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline PLC, is sold by Johnson & Johnson Healthcare. The agency approved Nicorette gum, available in six flavors, in February 1996, the Associated Press reported.

Watson said the market for over-the-counter nicotine gum was more than $300 million in the year ended September 2008. Perrigo Co. also makes a generic version of fruit-flavored Nicorette, AP said.


Chemo Medication Errors Common in Outpatient Setting: Study

A new study from the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that 7 percent of adults and 19 percent of children taking chemotherapy drugs in outpatient clinics or at home were given the wrong dose or experienced other mistakes with their medications.

The study, to be published in the Jan. 1, 2009, issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, examined data on almost 1,300 patient visits at three adult oncology outpatient clinics and 117 visits at one pediatric facility between Sept. 1, 2005 and May 31, 2006.

Fifty-five of the errors involving adults had the potential to harm, and 11 did cause harm. About 40 percent of the 22 errors in children had the potential for harm, and four children were harmed, according to Dr. Kathleen E. Walsh, the study's leader and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine.

Errors with adults included giving incorrect medication doses because of confusion over conflicting orders -- for example, giving one written order at the time of diagnosis and another on the day of administration. Pediatric errors included giving the wrong amount or the wrong number of doses per day for home medicines because of similarly confusing instructions.

Additionally, more than half of errors involving adults were in clinic administration, 28 percent occurred in ordering medications, and 7 percent were involved in taking drugs in patients homes. More than 70 percent of the pediatric errors occurred at home, the study found.

Walsh and her colleagues suggested that avoiding prewritten chemotherapy orders for adults in outpatient clinics may have prevented many of the errors, whereas those involving children could have been avoided by better communication and training. Specifically, the study called for more support for parents of children who use chemotherapy medications at home.