Slideshow: Advocates, Critics & Cats Outside Supreme Court

By Jessica Marcy, Kaiser Health News

Inside the Supreme Court building this week, the nation’s highest court is hearing oral arguments in a case that seeks to overturn the 2010 health law. Outside the building, Americans gathered to express their support or opposition to the law — or just to see history being made.

(KQED Note: yes, that is a cat on a leash on the steps of the Supreme Court, and yes, NPR’s Scott Hensley did blog about the now quasi-famous cat.)

Susan G. Komen Vs. Planned Parenthood

(Brandi Korte: Flickr)

(Brandi Korte: Flickr)

Reaction has been swift since the AP broke the news yesterday that the breast cancer charity, Susan G. Komen for the Cure is withdrawing future funding of any Planned Parenthood affiliates.

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America said pressure from anti-abortion groups sparked the Komen decision. The Komen Foundation counters that its guidelines do not permit funding if any organization is under a governmental investigation.

But those guidelines appear to be recent and have political underpinnings. As Jezebel reports: Continue reading

UCSF Study: Smoking Marijuana (Occasionally) Isn’t Bad For Lungs

Occasional marijuana use isn't bad for the lungs, according to a UCSF study. (Chuck Grimmett: Flickr)

Occasional marijuana use isn't bad for the lungs, according to a UCSF study. (Chuck Grimmett: Flickr)

Smoking an occasional marijuana joint isn’t bad for your lungs. In fact, lighting up once in a while may increase lung function, according to researchers at University of California, San Francisco.

The UCSF study, released today, looked at the pulmonary functions of 5,000 men and women over a 20 year period. It found that those who smoked marijuana for up to seven “joint-years” had a slight increase in lung capacity. What the heck is a “joint-year”? It’s defined as an average of one joint a day for seven years, or about one a week for 49 years.

But that doesn’t mean that marijuana smokers have the lung capacity of “The Thing” in Fantasic Four. The change in lung capacity doesn’t have much of a functional impact, according lead author and UCSF professor Mark Pletcher. “The amount of lung volume that is extra in marijuana smokers at that level versus non-marijuana smokers is very small.”

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Soda Tax: What Can a Penny Do?

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

We’ve seen it with tobacco. As taxes went up, use went down. Public health advocates have been salivating over the prospect of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to gain a similar foothold in the obesity epidemic and the myriad health problems excess weight causes. But hard evidence on the health effects of such a tax has been limited.

A new study in today’s Health Affairs, quantifies the impact quite nicely. A nationwide penny-per-ounce tax, the authors estimate, would reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by 15 percent. They say that modest reduction will lead to modest weight loss, which in turn leads to modest reductions in diabetes. After the researchers crunched all the numbers, all those modest reductions would, over ten years, result in 26,000 lives saves (or avoiding “premature deaths” as researchers prefer to say).

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Top Health Concerns for San Jose’s Vietnamese Community

More than 130,000 Vietnamese have relocated to Santa Clara County since the end of the Vietnam War.

Over 130,000 Vietnamese people relocated to Santa Clara County since the end of the Vietnam War. (Photo: Monica M. DaveyAFP/Getty Images)

The first wave of Vietnamese refugees came to the San Jose area in the 1980s, after the fall of Saigon. Now San Jose has the largest Vietnamese population of any city in the country. Santa Clara County is also second largest of any county in the U.S., after Orange County.

Today, Santa Clara released its first-ever Vietnamese health assessment to get a better understanding of this growing population’s health needs.

Health Officer Martin Fenstersheib says Santa Clara County didn’t have a good understanding of what the health needs of its Vietnamese community were prior to this report.

“We had a great interest in doing this because we tend to lump all of our statistics together, especially in the Asian, Pacific Island community. So things are reported that way also.”

Vietnamese adults have the highest mortality rates for liver cancer, more than four times higher than other county residents.

Three top health concerns are highlighted in the report: access to health care and health insurance, stigma related to getting mental health services, and cancer — particularly liver cancer related to Hepatitis B. Fenstersheib says the report recommends creating a task force to focus on reducing these health disparities.

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Bay Area Kids Get a Little Fatter … Except in San Mateo County

Woman's feet on scale.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Health advocates heaved a sign of relief this month over a new report showing that the obesity epidemic may be leveling off. In the past five years, the percentage of overweight and obese kids in California dropped by one percent. Not a screaming success, but a lot better than the gains seen since the 80s … or even in the past decade. The rate of overweight kids in California increased by six percent between 2001 to 2004 alone.

Some individual counties saw drops in obesity levels while others, like Del Norte County, saw massive increases. The report, aptly named “A Patchwork of Progress,” reflects on these discrepancies. The Bay Area itself is somewhat of a patchwork, too. In nearly all Bay counties, childhood obesity rates are on the rise. The single exception was San Mateo county, which saw 5.6 percent decrease.

So why are San Mateo County kids getting thinner while the rest of the Bay is getting fatter?

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Mamma Mia! Is Pizza a Vegetable or Not?

The secret, or in this case, the vegetable, is in the sauce. (Jyoti Das/Flickr)

The secret, or in this case, the vegetable, is in the sauce. (Jyoti Das/Flickr)

Health advocates are outraged. Corporate suppliers of school lunches are pleased and, presumably, kids are thrilled.

Earlier this week, Congress blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule changes for school lunches. Congress was worried about potential changes in starchy vegetables (think French Fries), sodium and whole wheat.

But more than anything else, pizza is getting all the attention. To clarify, it’s the tomato paste on the slice of pizza that has counted as a vegetable. That’s not new. The new proposal would have increased the tomato paste requirement from the current two tablespoons to half a cup.  Industry said that much tomato paste would render a slice of pizza inedible. So, two tablespoons per slice of pizza stands as a vegetable serving.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop rounded up the best bits of outrage, starting with Food Politics author and NYU Professor Marion Nestle.

“Does the Senate think this can pass the laugh test? … The Senate’s action has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with political posturing and caving in to lobbyists.”

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FAQs of Health Savings Accounts

(Photo: Kaiser Health News)

(Photo: Kaiser Health News)

For millions of Americans with employer-sponsored health insurance, it’s open enrollment time. Today, Kaiser Health News offers this helpful FAQ on Health Savings Accounts. HSAs, when teamed with a High-Deductible Health Plan, is on the list of choices consumers are looking at. According to the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans, the number of people using HSAs has increased over the last year.

Still, many people can find this option confusing. So, for starters, what is an HSA?

HSAs have two basic elements:

  • A tax-preferred savings account where money is set aside by the consumer (employers can also contribute) to pay for medical expenses and prescription drugs.
  • A high-deductible health insurance plan. In 2012, that deductible will be at least $1,200 for an individual and $2,400 for a family and as high as $6,050 and $12,100, respectively, according to the Treasury Department.

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Clearing the Air on Climate and Smog

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Climate Watch blog on October 21, 2011.

Tourists snap pictures of a murky sunset in San Diego.  (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images)

Tourists snap pictures of a murky sunset in San Diego. (Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images)

A major study released recently in Fresno details the direct link between higher levels of air pollution and asthma-related ER and hospital admissions. So, what’s that got to do with climate change? Plenty.

“There’s a division in the public’s mind between global warming and health effects of pollution,” says Dimitri Stanich of the California Air Resources Board.

In reality, there’s significant overlap. Some components of air pollution shown to have harmful warming effects on the planet are also harming people, especially children, right now.

Let’s start with ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is different from the ozone layer, which lies about 15 miles above the earth (not exactly ground level). The ozone layer shields us from most of the sun’s harmful rays. Ozone is good in the atmosphere but bad, in many ways, at or near ground level.

Some components of air pollution shown to have harmful warming effects on the planet are also harming people right now.
Ground-level ozone is not part of air pollution itself. Instead, it is formed by a complex chemical reaction starting with the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) component of air pollution. That chemical reaction is especially strong when the air is calm and the sun is shining (California’s Central Valley in the summer, anyone?). This stuff is terrible for your lungs.

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