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Vol. 109 September 1, 2014 Today’s Buzzword is “HARM REDUCTION”

In current events, drugs, evidence-based medicine, medical jargon on September 1, 2014 at 4:54 PM

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Harm reduction is a policy of encouraging and supporting an individual
to take incremental actions to reduce the potential harm of high-risk behaviors
which a person can’t or won’t stop.

 

 

The American Heart Association (AHA) last week reiterated its concern about the negative health effects of e-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes that deliver vaporized nicotine only), but cautiously noted that it considered e-cigarettes as an acceptable “last resort” for those who can’t stop smoking after using nicotine patches and other medications . This is the most recent example of a “harm reduction” strategy.

Aruni Bhatnagar, Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and the lead author of the AHA’s statement, wrote: “If someone refuses to quit, we’re not opposed to them switching from conventional to e-cigarettes…Don’t use them indefinitely. Set a quit date for quitting conventional, e-cigarettes and everything else.”

There is scant evidence that using e-cigarettes help people to stop smoking, but e-cigarettes do not deliver tars and other carcinogenic chemicals to the lungs. Hence, smoking an e-cigarette can reduce harm. The American Cancer Society jury is still out.

The “harm reduction” strategy, identified in the 1980‘s, began to really be promoted as an alternative to abstinence around 2000. It was initially focussed on psychoactive drug abuse, but was later expanded to include alcohol and all substance abuse. Its strategies are also incorporated into adolescent sex education, HIV prevention, and homeless health programs. Tactics include school-based distribution of condoms, community needle exchange programs, methadone maintenance, housing without sobriety for the homeless, and, in some countries, heroin dispensing clinics and clean injection facilities.

The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), or “just say no”, program was that was based on a zero tolerance principle, and it was not effective in reducing drug abuse.

Critics of the harm reduction strategy claim that such an approach can “normalize” the risky behavior that society wants to change. They think harm reduction policy can raise an expectation that such risky behavior is acceptable and even “expected”, particularly for adolescents.

Proponents of harm reduction quote extensive literature that shows that it is “inexpensive, evidence-based, and effective” . The designated driver awareness policy is an excellent example of a successful harm reduction tactic. It is one factor in the reduction of teen age car accidents and deaths. A few years ago the homeless health center with which I am associated stopped requiring alcohol abstinence, sobriety, on the part of a client prior to being placed in transitional housing. Its rates for successful stable housing, subsequent employment, and duration of sobriety increased among those clients.

 MYTH
Harm reduction is opposed to abstinence and therefore conflicts with traditional substance abuse treatment.
Harm reduction encourages drug use.
Harm reduction permits harmful behavior and maintains an “anything goes” attitude.

FACT
Harm reduction is not at odds with abstinence; instead, it includes it as one possible goal across a continuum of possibilities.
Harm reduction is neither for nor against drug use. It does not seek to stop drug use, unless individuals make that their goal.
Harm reduction focuses on supporting people’s efforts to reduce the harms created by drug use or other risky behaviors.
Harm reduction neither condones nor condemns any behavior. Instead, it evaluates the consequences of behaviors and tries to reduce the harms that those behaviors        pose for individuals, families and communities.

Despite all the scientific evidence, it is sometimes hard to fully embrace the concept of “harm reduction” emotionally. I sometimes feel that small moral tug of “whatever happened to right and wrong”. After all, the Ten Commandments say “Thou shall not commit adultery”; not “Try very hard not to commit adultery and, at least, don’t cause an unwanted pregnancy”. But, many studies  show that harm reduction strategies can benefit the individual, the family, and the community. We will be hearing a lot more about it, so we should get used to it.

Vol. 108 August 15, 2014 “Big” Marijuana?

In current events, government on August 15, 2014 at 10:01 PM

hubWhat will be the future impact of marijuana use?

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests very plausibly
that the history of tobacco use tells us how the marijuana industry might develop.

 


“The tobacco industry has provided a detailed road map for marijuana:

  • deny addiction potential,
  • downplay known adverse health effects,
  • create as large a market as possible as quickly as possible,
  • and protect the market through lobbying, campaign contributions, and other advocacy efforts.”

Marijuana (MJ) IS LESS addictive than tobacco. Presently about 9% of MJ users meet the criteria for dependence as compared to 32% for tobacco users. But, recent studies show that heavy MJ use by an adolescent can lead to structural brain changes and subsequent dependency as an adult. All researchers agree that MJ use in those under 21 years can be harmful and should not be permitted. Most agree that MJ is NO more a gateway drug than alcohol and tobacco are.

MJ’s effect on cognitive functioning IS LESS than alcohol, but it can slow reaction time. Effects of MJ are independent of blood or urine levels. There is no breathalyzer test for MJ. DUI standards for MJ do not exist. (see Buzzfeed video, “Drunk vs. Stoned”)

We now accept that smoking tobacco is a major cause of death. To our knowledge no one has ever died of marijuana. Since it is inhaled it can cause lung damage, but it doesn’t cause cancer. Sensitive to the concern about damage caused by inhaled MJ, sellers are already pushing vaporizers and edible products. A rumored joint venture between a medical MJ vendor and an e-cigarette manufacturer apparently sent stock prices soaring.

MJ is cited often for its useful effects for cancer and AIDS patients, and those benefits are real. There is very little evidence that MJ “reduces anxiety”. Such claims imply that “a little reduction of anxiety” will, of course, make your work and life easier and users will be more successful. Can’t you just envision the ad campaigns for “cool”, “mellow”, and “helpful MJ”?

Cigarettes started out as a “roll your own” process used by a small portion of the population in the 1880’s. By 1950 half of our population used tobacco, mostly cigarette smoking. As the process of making cigarettes was industrialized, 120,000 cigarettes a day were rolled and packaged by machines. Advertising and marketing soon expanded the use of cigarettes to the general population with special targets of women and the young. Cigarettes were made “more mellow” and had additives to speed absorption and “enhance taste”. Increasing the potency of MJ is already well under way and literally has free rein, since there is no standardization of MJ products. Competitive sellers boast of their product’s enhanced potency and use it as a marketing tool.

As the tobacco industry grew, so did the smoking lobbies and corporations that resisted regulation of tobacco products or distribution of the scientific studies of tobacco effects. The National Cannabis Industry Association with 450 business members and offices in Washington, D.C. and Denver already exists.  The strength and power of the tobacco lobby prevented us for 50 years from accepting cigarette smoking as a public health problem. Unlike cigarettes, MJ also has the internet that provides direct, and directed, advertising to the public; a fantastically effective and profitable way to sell a product as proven by our pharmaceutical companies.

Anyone that does not believe that MJ will become a major business need only look at the competitive scramble for permits in states newly allowing medical marijuana dispensing ; a fierce competition despite ambiguity of Federal vs. state law compatibility, as well as hefty application and annual permit fees.

“The free-market approach to tobacco clearly failed to protect the public’s welfare and the common good: in spite of recent federal regulation, tobacco use remains the leading cause of death in the U.S.” The author calls for “collaboration among the FDA, NIH, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) , the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and other agencies” to “understand the harms and forecast the effects of industrialization” of MJ. In light of the ineffectiveness of multiple governmental agencies in “collaborating” to ensure proper, transparent food labeling and enhance the public health, one can’t be too optimistic about government’s effectiveness in influencing the manufacture, selling, and use of MJ in the future.

References:
1. NEJM 371:5 July 31, 2014 “Big Marijuana – Lessons From Big Tobacco”, Richter and Levy
2. Institute of Medicine, Marijuana and Health, 1982
3. Institute of Medicine, Marijuana and Medicine – Assessing the Science 1997

Vol. 107 July 15, 2014 Update on Sunscreens

In drugs, Pediatrics on July 15, 2014 at 12:17 PM

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“Consumers continue to [erroneously] perceive high-SPF sunscreens as more effective than lower ones.”
– Consumer Reports, July 2014

 

My last blog on sunscreens a year ago was largely based on a testing of products by Consumer Reports. So is this one.

1. The FDA does NOT test sunscreen products before they are put on sale.
The FDA does require manufacturers to meet certain standards in order to label their product with these three terms:
“SPF  number “- level of protection from UVB rays that cause sunburn
“broad spectrum” – also protects against UVA rays that can increase skin aging
“water-resistant” – claims protection for 80 minutes after immersion
In 2011 the FDA requested more data from manufacturers about sunscreen sprays and is currently evaluating it.

2. Any SPF over 30 provides little more protection, and will cost you more.
SPF 15 = 93% protection
SPF 30 = 97% protection
SPF 50 = 98% protection
SPF 100 = 99% protection

3. Sunscreen for kids is a marketing gimmick.
Though half of parents who use sunscreen on their children think that sunscreen for kids is “safer” and “gentler”, that is simply NOT true. The FDA makes no distinction in standards for children’s sunscreens and the ingredients of most “children’s” sunscreens are identical to and are present in the same concentration as regular sunscreen. Some may  be reformulated to be “tear-free” or “sting-free”, but that is the only difference.

4. Use more of it, and earlier than you think.
Apply the sunscreen at least 15 minutes before exposure because the chemicals take that long to interact before providing protection. Apply at least an ounce (2 tablespoons or one shot glass full) to cover your face and body adequately.  Reapply every 2 hours.

5. “Natural” sunscreens are no safer nor more effective than “chemical” ones.
There are no effective “natural” sunscreens, however defined, on the market. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide are natural minerals, but if used in their natural (unprocessed) state your zinc oxide covered nose would be black and covered with lead! Sunscreen lotions with zinc oxide and titanium oxide NANOPARTICLES are clear, neither black nor white, but nanoparticles still have their safety critics. “Natural” sunscreens, often labeled as “mineral” rather than “chemical”, can also clump and lose uniformity of SPF.

6. The jury (NIH and the FDA) is still out on the safety of nanoparticles in sunscreens, but the risk appears to be very small.
Nanoparticles do not penetrate skin cells and actually provide very good protection against the effects of the sun, but the potentials effects of inhalation (powders) or ingestion (lip balm) have generated some caution. Nanoparticles have long been used in a whole variety of cosmetics, combine with cells in very tiny amounts, and are approved in sunscreens in Europe. According to the Environmental Working Group, a watch-dog  organization that has been monitoring the use of  nanoparticles in cosmetics for years, “Nanoparticles are a lower hazard than most sunscreen ingredients approved for the U.S. market.”

7. Sunscreen sprays are not recommended.
Correct spray patterns are key for good protection, even spraying the same area twice is recommended, and it is not a good thing to breathe in the spray. The best way to use a spray is to spray it in your hand and then apply it, so why bother with a spray? The FDA is investigating the potential risks of spray sunscreens; like standing too close to a grill after you have sprayed and getting burned when the propellant ignites.

A selected list of products (not all recommended) Consumer Reports tested: (7 of 24 tested products were “recommended”)
(scores are result of UVB and UVA protection measured by wave length and effects of a soak in the tub for 80 minutes: 100 is the maximum)

Up and Up  Sport Spray (Target)           SPF 50     $0.80 per ounce    score: 90 Rec.
Coppertone Water Babies                        SPF 50     $1.38 per ounce     score: 81 Rec.
Equate Ultra Protection (Walmart)      SPF 50      $0.56 per ounce    score: 80 Rec.
No-Ad Sport                                                SPF 50      $0.63 per ounce    score: 69
Up and Up Kids (Target)                         SPF 50      $0.64 per ounce    score: 39
Banana Boat Kids                                     SPF 50      $1.25 per ounce     score: 16

References:
1. Consumer Reports, July 2014, “The Truth About Sunscreens”.

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