Vol. 107 July 15, 2014 Update on Sunscreens

July 15, 2014


“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

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

Vol. 109 March 15, 2014 “Misfearing” – Misperceptions of Health (and Other) Risks

March 15, 2014


“Heart Attack Three Times as Likely With Drug A.”

We are all familiar with headlines like this, sometimes not as dramatic, but still attention-getting. It’s enough “to strike fear into your heart”.  As we read on we see the actual numbers, often buried more than half way through,  “ 1000 patients were given drug A and 3 of them had a heart attack. 1000 similar patients were not given the drug and only 1 of them had a heart attack.” 3 is 300% more than 1, but look how low the risk is: an increase from 0.1% to 0.3% risk invokes a lot less fear. By reporting the relative risk percentages rather than the absolute risk percentages the article nurtures “misfear” ; instinctive fear rather than factual fear.

When women are asked what they think the number one killer of women is, most respond, “breast cancer”.  The correct answer is “heart disease”. Clearly women fear breast cancer more than they fear heart attacks.

Which is a greater danger to a child, a gun in the house or a swimming pool?
Each year in the U.S. one child is killed by a gun for every 1,000,000 gun owners. One child drowns for every 11,000 residential swimming pools. Residential swimming pools are much more dangerous to children, but they won’t get the headlines until perhaps a whole birthday party drowns in one. It is less expensive to take steps at home to safeguard guns than it is to build a fence and install alarms around a swimming pool.This raises the issue of cost-benefit analysis in risk assessment. Does the cost of prevention efforts result in a significant benefit? Do we spend a lot of money to try to reduce small risks and little or nothing to reduce big risks? (2)

Sex Offenders
Our current policy of publicly identifying names and addresses of past sex offenders is based on two specific cases (3): an 11-year-old boy kidnapped by a masked gunman in 1989 and never found and Megan, a seven-year old raped and killed by a neighbor in 1994.  “Megan’s Law”  requiring states to publish personal information about sex offenders was passed by Congress in hopes of helping people to protect their children and prevent such crimes. Unfortunately that has not been the result. Two 2008 studies found no decrease in such crime rates and concluded that public notifications “tell the public nothing about the actual risks of a sex crime.” The resulting “misfear” may lead to all sorts of school bus stop, day care drop-off, shopping mall, etc. regulations which may do nothing to reduce risks. In addition such notification may be harmful by making it harder for the “ex-con” to reintegrate into society, find a job, and avoid harassment of fearful neighbors.  In my town such a discharged sex offender killed an adult neighbor with a baseball bat during an afternoon argument on the neighborhood street. As the story unfolded, the dead victim, who had no young children, was described as the only neighbor that had not accepted the presence of the discharged and publicly identified offender, and who was reported to have repeatedly disparage and verbally harass him.

“One in 7 Young People Solicited For Sex Online” is enough to start a moral panic about the internet. The actual report that on which this headline was stated that nearly all of the solicitations were from teens’ peers and other young adults, and that most teens did not find such encounters as upsetting. (4) “Misfear” has led to numerous attempts to regulate the internet “to control sexual predators” rather than fund programs to help vulnerable youth. Statistically such sexual victimization is more likely to occur through school or church participation than through the internet.  One expert decries the blooming of this “misfear” into a general distrust of adult strangers which can blunt “the teenager’s exploration and learning of the world.”

Examples of past “misfears” include – (5)
Elevator Sickness (1892): Scientific American reported that the new 600 feet per minute elevators (that made skyscrapers possible)  could cause “dizziness, irregular sleep, a constant desire to void, and motion sickness” through the herky-jerky motion of internal organs. The elevator was also feared as a spreader of contagious disease through shared conveyances, the originator of the concept of claustrophobia, and  a source of psychological stress about new kinds of “stranger etiquette”. (6)

Bicycle Face (1890): “Nearly all bicyclists have an expression either anxious, irritable, or at best stony… due to the nervous strain of balancing on two wheels.” Now “joggers face” is something I can believe in. I have never seen a jogger with a smile on their face.

Television Neck and Legs (1950): ‘ Viewing your favorite shows too intently could permanently limit the range of motion of your head.”  The AMA warned teens not to sit too long watching TV lest they develop “lack of flexibility” below the waist. That “misfear” of “lack of flexibility” has been translated by modern statistical research into the real fear of childhood obesity.

Examples of present “misfears” include:
Drinking bottled water: More than half of the parents studied chose bottled water for their children believing it was safer, cleaner, and more convenient than tap water. Several other studies have shown that except for increased convenience, those reasons are not true. Besides noting that the average cost of $23 a month for the bottled water, public health experts decry its use because of its lack of fluoride to improve pediatric oral health. (7)

Lice: The launching of the “Lice Protocol” by schools and day care centers currently rivals the launching of the “Concussion Protocol” and the“Bullying Protocol” in terms of drama and “misfear”-mongering. Lice do not cause any disease, hardly ever cause any symptoms except some mild itching, are spread only by direct contact, but are the subject of wide-spread fears and treatments. Such “misfear”, perhaps bolstered by the yuck factor, has spurred development of $200 per visit home delousing services (NitWits, Lice Aunties, Desperate Lousewives) (8)  The Academy of Pediatrics recommendations state,  “Head lice are the cause of much embarrassment and misunderstanding, many unnecessary days lost from school and work, and millions of dollars spent on remedies. Because of the lack of evidence of efficacy, classroom or school-wide screening should be strongly discouraged. No healthy child should be excluded from or allowed to miss school time because of head lice. “No nit” policies for return to school should be discouraged.” 

Wind Turbine Syndrome: Much too long and complicated a subject for this brief blog. Maybe in the near future, if it turns out to be the result of “infrasound” rather than going the way of elevator sickness.

1. “Misfearing”,NEnglJMed 370;7 Feb. 13, 2014, p.595, Lisa Rosenbaum, MD
2.  “Avoiding the Cost of Needless Fear,” BosGlobe Ma.r 6 2014, pg. K6, Cass Sunstein, Prof. Harvard law School)
3.  “Follow Evidence, Not Gut Feeling, on Sex Offenders”, BosGlobe August 28, 2011, Gareth Cook, p. K9
4. “Parents, Forget the Online Bogeyman”,Bos Globe Mar 9. 2014, pg.K10, David Finkelhor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center.
“Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”, Danah Boyd, Microsoft Research, in press
5. Bos Globe Feb. 19, 2012, p.K12
6. Bos Globe March 2, 201, p.K1, Leon Neyfakh, Daniel Levinson Wilk, Assoc Prof of History at Fashion Institute of Technology, NY.
7. ArchPediatrAdolesc Med 2011 Jun 6
8. “Cleaning Up With Lice Treatments”,Bos Globe May 27, 2011, p. B5, Jenifer McKim

Vol. 100 November 1, 2013 Paranoia and Other Scary Bits

November 1, 2013

Cheney cartoon

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
– Joseph Heller, Catch 22

Even the powerful can get paranoid
Former Vice President Dick Cheney recently said during a “60 Minute” interview that he had his cardiologist turn off the wireless function in his implanted pacemaker “in case a terrorist tried to send his heart a fatal shock.” Years later, he saw that scenario played out in an “Homeland” episode. (1) We knew that his DC residency was pixellated in the Google satellite view. We wondered if he was on the NASA phone surveillance list, but then we remembered that he ordered that.

Sometimes “They” are right
Surveys of over a million people nationwide revealed that Northeast people were described as “irritable, impulsive, and quarrelsome”. Ever drive in Boston? Midwest and Deep South people were considered “conventional, friendly, sociable, compliant, and emotionally stable”, while the West weighed in as “creative and relaxed, reserved, and perhaps somewhat distant.” Well, California IS distant from Boston and New York. (2)

“Whenever physicians are talking about quality, they are talking about money”
From 2005 to 2010 the urology practices that owned a new radiation technology (IMRT) for treatment of prostatic cancer used IMRT twice as much as urologists who did not own the machine so had to refer patients to others for IMRT. Treatment of prostatic cancer with IMRT cost about $31,000 as compared to about $16,000 for surgery or implantation of radioactive seeds. (3)

“I can’t find a primary care physician!”
In 2006 the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), fearing a future doctor shortage, recommended a 30% increase in medical school slots. That goal may be reached by 2016. BUT, there has been no federal support for increased residency training slots. The AAMC states that there is currently a 15,000 shortage of residency training slots. Medicare funding of Graduate Medical Education (GME) is the major support of residency training, and it was reduced by $11 billion during the ACA debates. It is unlikely to be restored during the 2014 budget debates.  “Physician shortages may become more apparent as the ACA’s coverage expansion takes hold.” (4)

“Not another new flu?!”
Chinese health officials announced in March that a “novel” influenza A virus (H7N9) had infected 132 people and that 37 of them had died. BUT, there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission and very few of the 20,000 Chinese with flu-like illness actually showed infection with H7N9.  A new element in the tracking of the virus was the recognition of huge spikes in tweets containing the word “H7N9” in both Chinese and English. “Digital Disease Surveillance” is the new term.

Why does a state refuse federal money via Obamacare to subsidize its Medicaid program ?
The New England Journal of Medicine says there are 33 such states, and John Stewart says there are 26. These states are declining to set up health insurance marketplaces (“exchanges”) under Obamacare (ACA) and have acquiesced to the federal government to do so. As a result these states will NOT receive the ACA federal subsidy (up to 100%) of their Medicaid costs for the next three years. John Stewart’s incredulous search for a common denominator of why these states would “bite off their nose to spite their face” came up with only one, a Republican governor and/or a Republican-controlled legislature. (5)

“Umpires are always ruling against my team!”
A study of a million pitches in or near the strike zone, but not swung on, revealed that umpires are less likely to call close ones against batters who are catchers. Presumably due to the rapport that the two develop over long hours of being in close proximity.  Also, the strike zone for the next pitch when the count is no balls and two strikes is apparently 26% smaller than the strike zone when the count is 3 balls and no strikes.(6)

There is no free lunch…or free drugs.
Coupons for free prescription drugs were available in 2011 for nearly 400 brand-name drugs or about 11% of all brand-name prescriptions. 75% of the coupons were for drugs treating chronic conditions (those needing six months or more of treatment), and 58% of those brand-name drugs had lower-cost alternative drugs available. By the time the brand-name coupons expire or run out, the pharmaceutical companies seem to hope that the patient has developed a loyalty for it or resists a change to a lower cost equivalent because of its perceived effectiveness.(7)

“I could be killed by lightning playing golf in the rain.”
Who would think otherwise with all those golfers out there swinging metal golf clubs under big antenna-like umbrellas in the rain? It turns out that anglers, campers, and boaters account for more of the 152 fatal lightning strikes over the past seven years than golfers.  About half of the anglers and boaters were struck while seeking safety. The others were clueless and presumably victims of a “bolt from the blue.”

Fear of terrorism
Polls taken in Boston after the Marathon bombings indicate that more people think that “such attacks are likelier, but fewer live in dread of them.”…”In the United States since 9/11 Islamic terrorism has resulted in the deaths of 37 people. During that same period, ten thousand times that many have been killed by guns wielded by their countrymen or themselves.” (8)

“Will my baby’s flat head harm the brain?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics 1992 recommendation to reduce sudden infant death (SIDS) by having the infant sleep on his/her back has worked. The incidence of SIDS has dropped by 50%, but referrals to subspecialty clinics for plagiocephaly (flat head) have increased.  In a recent study of four Canadian communities 47% of 440 infants had observable plagiocephaly (a flat side of the head). Most were mild and needed no treatment, but the mothers probably stayed worried until time and normal activity rounded things out. (9)

1. Boston Globe, 10/26/2013, report from interview on “60 Minutes”
2. Boston Globe, 10/27/13, report from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
3. NEJM, 369;17,  October 24, 2013
4. NEJM, 369;4,  July 25, 2013
5. NEJM, 369;13, September 26, 2013
6. Boston Globe, 7/122/13, report from “Social Pressure at the Plate: Inequality, Aversion, Status, and Mere Exposure”
7. NEJM 369;13,  September 26, 2013
8. The New Yorker, May 20, 2013, p. 36
9. Pediatrics 2013 Aug; 132:298

Vol. 90 May 15, 2013 Medical Marijuana and Other Designer Drugs

May 15, 2013


The implied expectation of the term “medical marijuana” is that a physician can write a prescription like any other prescription; one with a drug name, a precise dosage, a frequency, a mode of administration, and a quantity for a stated duration. For example, “Penicillin, 250 mg. tablets, take three times a day for 10 days”. Fat chance when it comes to a prescription for marijuana. There are over a hundred different types and strengths of marijuana (cannabis) and each marijuana product itself contains at least 460 active chemicals. The breeding efforts and expertise that has gone into producing “a better marijuana” is impressive. Anyone that protests “genetically engineered” tomatoes or oranges should not be smoking marijuana. Prescribing cannabinoids, a single active chemical often referred to as “synthetic marijuana”, in tablet or capsule form has been used as medical marijuana by oncology  and pain management centers for years.  “It just ain’t the same” according to marijuana advocates, and some research suggests that with 460 active chemicals in marijuana they may be right.

The Massachusetts Department of Health has just issued 52 pages of regulations for dispensing medical marijuana. They will require a prescription to have a maximum amount that is expected to be sufficient for 60 days, defined as 10 oz. Ten ounces is about 284 grams and a “blunt” is about 1 gram, so that would be about 4 “blunts” a day for 60 days. Prescriptions can be written for patients over 18 yrs. with a “debilitating medical condition” (7 are specifically named plus “others”) or a “life-limiting illnesses” (expected death in 2 years). Patients under 18 yr. may get a prescription for the same reasons as agreed to by two physicians, one of whom is a pediatrician. Independent labs will be responsible for testing the product for contamination, usually a variety of heavy metals. The strength of the dispensed product and the degree of its effects will be variable.

So, what is so bad about marijuana? Use of marijuana (MJ) can acutely slow reflex time, impair motor coordination, and alter perceptions, similar to alcohol. Of course, these functions are all important for safe driving. There are more permanent and potentially more significant effects of heavy use of marijuana in adolescents.

According to recent research MJ is really not so bad for you if you are over 20 years old. Using the new techniques of functional MRI (fMRI) by which brain function as well as structure can be measured, it has been shown that contrary to previous thought, the frontal lobe is still undergoing maturation up to the age of 20.  Maturation of the brain as measured by the increase of white matter, the “tissue of connections” between all the components of the brain, is retarded by heavy (daily) use of MJ, especially in “early users” (start at age 13). The old TV spot of “This is your brain, and this is your brain on drugs” using the frying egg image may be correct for MJ use by those under 20. Adolescents in general tend to be impulsive and have some difficulty in judging the long-term consequences of present actions, and these are functions of the frontal lobe.

Unlike tobacco use that can be measured easily  in terms of number of cigarettes smoked per day and alcohol use that can be measured in ounces drunk per day or per hour, the variety of MJ product’s strength is so diverse that “daily use” is the only reliable marker for heavy users of MJ. Unlike tobacco and alcohol, heavy use of marijuana can NOT kill you. Lester Grinspoon, MD years ago called marijuana “the safest drug in the world”  since it is impossible to commit suicide with it. It is rare to hear about an accidental “marijuana overdose”.

MJ-morphine cartoon

The three drugs of adolescent choice today, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana, do share a common denominator in that those who use one of the three drugs by age 13, will use one or more of the others before 18 yr. There is no evidence that one is the “gateway” to another. In fact, one research remarked that the concept of a gateway is more of a myth than a reality. He called development of addiction to one or the other substance as a “shared vulnerability”.

By their senior year in high school 36% in one survey had tried MJ. There is no way of predicting which of those could eventually become heavy (daily) users in danger of suppressing their higher neuro-cognitive functions. It is not a question of access to MJ. Student users in a treatment program and researchers presenting at a recent conference made it clear that access to MJ in middle and high school was currently wide open.  In fact, remember that Dr. Grinspoon’s wife got marijuana for their son undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in his schoolyard in 1967! Medical marijuana dispensaries are NOT going to increase access to MJ for adolescents.

Spice is a vegetable product sprayed with synthetic marijuana, cannabinoids, that can be smoked or brewed as a tea. It is sold in convenience and incense stores with the label “not for human consumption” to avoid FDA regulations. The cannabinoids can have 50 to 100 more of an affinity for binding to marijuana sites in the brain than MJ itself. Its effects are similar to but can be much stronger than “smoking a joint”, and about 11% of high school seniors have tried “Spice”. Cannabinoids are easily manipulated synthetic chemicals so that simple chemical changes are made in manufacturing to skirt FDA regulations.

Bath Salts are completely useless for baths. It is a white crystal of chemicals (cathinones) that produce amphetamine effects when ingested, smoked, or snorted. Like Spice it carries the label “not for human consumption”. It was sold as an over the counter health supplement free of FDA regulations.  Both Spice and Bath Salts were first introduced in the U.K. and  Europe, and after much commercial success there they have come to the U.S. and Canada. Bath Salts were Federally banned in the U.S. in July 2012.

“Take home messages”:
1. Marijuana use before the age of 20 does have structural and functional effects on brain development, primarily but not limited to the frontal lobe. (“The frontal lobe, responsible for impulse control, is the last to develop and the first to go.”)

2. After the age of 20 there is little current evidence that MJ causes any permanent effect on brain function or structure.

3. There are  currently no predictors that will identify an occasional user of MJ as one who will become dependent or addicted to MJ (daily use), but the earlier one starts using marijuana (13 yo.) the more likely brain function will be effected.

4. Despite the “trustworthy karma” of medical marijuana, marijuana prescriptions will result in the dispensing of varied, complex, and inconsistent products.

5. Access to marijuana by middle and high school students in 2013 is now so easy according to both students and researchers  that medical marijuana dispensaries will provide little increased access to adolescents.

1. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University
2.ASAP, Adolescent Substance Abuse Program, Boston Children’s Hospital, Sharon Levy, MD MPH, Director

Vol. 85 March 1, 2013 “As Time Goes By…Take A Pill”

March 1, 2013

hubIn the 70’s my oldest child created this mantra for our family ski trips so that no one would forget anything:

“Skis, boots, poles,
hat, jacket, gloves,
scarf, goggles, money.”

Now that I am in my 70’s my mantra now goes like this:

“Skis, boots, poles,
helmet, jacket, gloves,
pills, CPAP, gin.”

This week four of my over-70 friends and I went for a ski trip which is how this mantra change occurred. (Full disclosure: the other four actually skied) Between the five of us we have about a dozen diagnoses: overweight (4), arthritis (3), sleep apnea (2), neuropathy (1), hip replacements (2 hips, 1 guy), reduced hearing (1), back surgery (2), colon cancer (1), diverticulitis (1), hypertension (2), chronic lung disease (1) and…oh yeh… multiple myeloma (1). Those are our physical diagnoses. I am fairly certain that none of our personality quirks meet enough criteria for a mental diagnosis in the DSM-5.

Of us five, one is taking no pills and one is taking 30 a day. The others are taking from 3 to 6 pills daily, so excluding the two outliers we averaged 4 daily pills per person. Different surveys over the years have indicated a variety of average daily pills taken by senior citizens:

1992 –  15 prescription pills per day per senior citizen (USHHS Department)
1992  – 19.6 prescription pills per day per senior citizen (PRIME Institute)
2000 –  28.5 prescription pills per day per senior citizen (PRIME Institute)
2010  – 51% of seniors took at least 5 prescription pills per day
.             25% of seniors take 10 to 19 prescription pills daily (Epill)

In 1986 pharmaceutical companies began advertising drugs directly to consumers. Such ads were required by the FDA to list all significant side effects, but could not include the drug’s name. The very first ad was for Seldane, an anti-allergy medicine, which was identified in the ad only as “a medicine that didn’t make you drowsy. Ask your doctor about it.”. The company hoped to boost Seldane sales from $34 million annually to $100 million. By the time the dust settled, Seldane sales eventually topped out at $800 million annually. “Pharmaceutical companies took note” would be the understatement of that year.

In 1997, the FDA rules governing pharmaceutical advertising changed, and companies could name both the drug and what it’s for, while only naming the most significant potential side effects. The number of ads really exploded. In 2009 The Nielsen Co. reported an average of 80 drug ads per hour every day on American television.

“Something like a third of consumers who’ve seen a drug ad have talked to their doctor about it,” says Julie Donohue, a professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh who is considered a leading expert on this subject.”About two-thirds of those have asked for a prescription. And the majority of people who ask for a prescription have that request honored.” (1)

Our mantra continues:
“Hey, Doc,
Forget the Mediterranean Diet.
I’m an American.
Give me a pill.”

1. NPR, Joe Davis,  by Alix Spiegel, 2009.

Vol. 76 October 15, 2012 The High Life and A Good Death

October 15, 2012

“Hey, D-u-u-de!”
-The Big Lebowski, 1998

“She had a good death.”
-traditional Irish Catholic saying

On Nov. 6 Massachusetts will vote on two medically related referendum questions: Medical Marijuana and Physician-Assisted Suicide.  In the spirit of transparency and to offer a break from mind-numbing candidate debates, I offer this short commentary on the two…and a proposal to combine them.

Ballot Question 3: “Do you approve of  a law that would eliminate state and criminal and civil penalties related to the medical use of marijuana allowing certain patients to obtain by a physician’s prescription marijuana  produced and distributed by new state-regulated centers,or, in specific hardship cases, to grow marijuana for their own use?”

Short name: Medical Use of Marijuana
A better name: “Marijuana by request of certain consenting adults”
Street spin: Very positive

Who’s against it:  AMA and Mass Medical Society – Concerns: “The slippery slope” What’s next? Legalization of marijuana?
Local police very concerned about increased cost of investigating and enforcing multiple backyard plots.
Anti-Smoking organizations.
When Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 making it illegal for anyone, including doctors, “to move cannabis without proper documentation”, the AMA opposed the bill!  (1)

Who’s for it: Lester Grinspoon, MD (2), most people under 50, and anybody who answers to the name, “Dude.”

What does the data show: Illegal marijuana is currently a bigger cash crop in Kentucky than tobacco. There are more medical marijuana shops in Denver than Starbucks. It IS (is NOT) a “gateway” drug…take your pick of positions…data supports both. 17 states have legalized medical marijuana.

Worst case scenario: Prescriptions for marijuana surpass number of prescriptions for SSRIs, Ritalin, and Oxycodone… or maybe that would be an improvement?

Economic implications: Could be a significant economic stimulus… in Kentucky, at least. The price of medical marijuana in California and Colorado is half the price that illegal marijuana was.

Possible future headline: “Legal Marijuana Aids Economic Recovery, Second Only to Casino Development.”

Ballot Question 2: “Do you approve of a law that would allow a physician licensed in Massachusetts to prescribe medication, at the request of a terminally ill patient meeting certain conditions, to end that person’s life?”

Short name: Physician Assisted Suicide
A better name: “Death with Dignity by request of certain consenting adults.”
Street spin: How can anything be positive about the term “suicide”? “Physician-assisted dying” is closer to the reality.

Who’s against it: AMA and Mass Medical Society; incompatible with the “curative and healer” roles of physicians – Concerns: “The slippery slope” What’s next? Lethal injections for psoriasis?
We can’t always be certain of which months are “the last 6 of my life”, but about 83% of hospice patients were right in one study.
Who’s for it: Many members of Ethics Committees in acute care hospitals who have helped patients and families endure prolonged, high-tech deaths.

What does the data show: Since its passage in 1997 less than 100 Oregon patients per year have requested end-of-life medications. In 2011 only about one-half of the people getting such prescriptions in Oregon actually took the pills. (Maybe it IS a question of patients’ desire for lost autonomy and control) In Oregon 90% of requesting patients were enrolled in a hospice program and nearly 90% had cancer.

Worst case scenario: Patients may desire more power over their medical life as well as their medical death.

Economic implications: May have positive impact on medical care costs if people choose not to go into hospitals and be admitted to ICUs in the last 6 months of their life.

Possible future headline: “AMA Admits Physicians Can’t Cure Everyone, Calls For More Dignity In Dying”

Proposed Ballot Question 4: “Do you approve of a law that would allow physicians to prescribe marijuana to end the life of a terminally ill patient?”

Short name: “Physician Assisted Dying by Marijuana”.
Street spin: It will never happen. Marijuana is the ONE drug that can NOT cause a lethal overdose (unlike alcohol, aspirin, and the others). Dr. Grinspoon described it as “remarkably non-toxic”. He initiated his intensive research into the effects of marijuana when he observed its benefits in his son undergoing chemotherapy. (His wife got the marijuana for Danny in the parking lot of a local high school because Dr. Grinspoon was initially so skeptical of its effects).(1)

1. “Where’s the Pipe?”, Casey Lyons, Boston Magazine, October 2012
2. Marijuana Reconsidered, Lester Grinspoon,MD; 1971 and Marijuana:The Forbidden Medicine; 1997

Vol. 74 September 15, 2012 More Surprising Medical Fun Facts

September 15, 2012

An 11 year study of 41,000 adult Spaniards showed no association between consumption of food fried in olive oil or sunflower oil and deaths from heart attacks. (1)

More than 10,000 events of non-trivial bleeding (intestinal bleeding, stroke, nose bleeds, and blood in the urine) occurred in 102,000 study participants who did NOT have heart disease BUT who were taking daily aspirin in hopes of preventing fatal heart attacks. Their death rate from heart attack was NOT reduced. (2)

Eating only organic food made very little difference in the health of individuals according to a Stanford University review of 237 studies (a “Meta-analysis”). Organic produce had a 30% reduction in detectable levels of pesticides compared to standard produce. If uncooked organic meat harbored bacteria, those bacteria were 33% less apt to be resistant to multiple antibiotics compared to uncooked non-organic meat. (3)

More than 6300 reports of serious adverse events associated with vitamins, herbs, and other dietary supplements were filed with the FDA from 2007 to mid-April 2012. (The FDA expects 8,160 to be filed by dietary supplement companies in the next three years.)
The FDA has banned only one ingredient, ephedrine alkaloids (ephedra), used in weight loss supplements and implicated in a number of deaths. That took 10 years to do.
The only ingredient in supplements that requires an FDA warning label about adverse effects is iron, because accidental overdosing in children can be fatal. Labeling of potential adverse side effects and/or interactions with other drugs or supplements is extremely inconsistent.(4)
Check out this website for a guide to over 100 dietary supplements: Consumer Reports-Natural Health.

30% of the water consumed in Singapore is recycled sewage water called NEWater. The public accepted it only after a massive public educational campaign and the decision to release the NEWater only by mixing it in with the water in regular reservoirs. (5) Recycled sewage water may soon by on sale in the U.S. under the name “Porcelain Spring”, using Jack Black as it’s celebrity promoter. For other striking facts about the growing water shortage in Las Vegas, parts of California, and a shrinking Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam check out the movie, “Last Call at the Oasis.

Factor by which the number of American babies born addicted to opiates has increased since 2000:  3
Number of private U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks in 2010:   15
Number of U.S. citizens killed by falling TV sets in 2010:   16    (6)

% change in average retail price for drugs from 2007 to 2012 and 2012 cost per prescription:
Crestor (statin) +91%               $214         generic in 7/2016
Lipitor (statin)  +87%                $237      generic available
Plavix (anticoagulant) +84%   $261      generic available
Boniva (osteporosis)  +102%    $240     generic available
Singulair (asthma)  +72%        $205      generic available
Provigil (sleepiness)  +305%   $1,101   generic available   (7)

The rate of infants born to adolescents aged 15-17 years dropped in 2012 from 20 to 17 per 1000.
The percentage of children under the age of 6 years living in a home with a smoker decreased from 15% in 2005 to 10% in 2012.
The percentage of children living in counties with air pollutants above allowable levels increased from 59% to 67%. (8)

In the mid-60’s each patient discharged alive from Massachusetts General Hospital “cost” about $4,000. In 2002 that “cost” was over $25,000 per patient.
Since 2001 the mortality rate of patients hospitalized at MGH has been stable at about 2% “but the cost per patient has escalated dramatically”. This period seems to be characterized by “diminishing returns with growth in costs far outpacing reductions in inpatient mortality”.(9)

1. BMJ 2012 Jan. 24 :344
2.“Aspirin: To use or not to use?” Arch Intern Med 2012 Feb 13; 172
3. Ann Int Med reported in Bos Glob Sept. 4, 2012
4. Consumer Reports September 2012
5.Wired Sep 2012 p.32
6. Harper’s Index June 2012
7. Consumer Reports on Health Sept. 2012
8. Reported in Journal Watch Pediatrics Sept. 2012 
9. N Engl J Med 366:23 June 7, 2012

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