Smoking Ban Passes in Virginia

The State of Virginia has passed legislation banning smoking in many public places.  Effective December 1, 2009, smoking will be banned in most restaurants and bars, although it will be permitted in private clubs, on some outdoor patios and in separate ventilated rooms.  Civil penalties for violation of the new law will amount to no more than $25.

Virginia will become the first state in the South to ban smoking in both restaurants and bars.  Passage of this type of smoking ban was believed to be unlikely in Virginia, where tobacco has historically played an important economic role (Phillip Morris is now headquartered in Virginia and has had ties to the region since colonial time).

According to Gallup, public sentiment is shifting towards these types of bans, and even a majority of smokers think restrictions on smoking in public are justified.

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Obama overturns anti-abortion funding policy

Obama signed the memorandum without coverage by the media on a day following the 36th anniversary of the 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.

The move by Obama to reverse the Mexico City Policy received both praise and criticism from both sides of the abortion debate.

“Women’s health has been severely impacted by the cutoff of assistance. President Obama’s actions will help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, abortions and women dying from high-risk pregnancies because they don’t have access to family planning,” said Tod Preston, a spokesman for Population Action International.

“Yesterday, President Obama issued executive orders banning the torture of terrorists but today signed an order that exports the torture of unborn children around the world,” said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

“President Obama not long ago told the American people that he would support policies to reduce abortions, but today he is effectively guaranteeing more abortions by funding groups that promote abortion as a method of population control,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.

In a statement issued with the memorandum Obama said the limitations on funding were “excessively broad” and adding that “they have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family programs in foreign nations.” He added that “For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us.I  have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate.” Obama also said that he would ask his administration to initiate a “fresh conversation” on family planning and to seek common ground with abortion opponents.

In an accompanying statement, President Obama said he would also work with Congress to restore U.S. funding support for the United Nations Population Fund “to reduce poverty, improve the health of women and children, prevent HIV/AIDS and provide family planning assistance to women in 154 countries.”

According to the Washington Post, lifting the Mexico City Policy would not permit U.S. tax dollars to be used for abortions, but it would allow funding to resume to groups that provide other services, including counseling about abortions.

Bush Administration Issued Last-Minute Rule Reinforcing Protections for Health Care Workers’ Conscientious Objections

In the Bush administration’s final days in power, the Bush administration issued a federal rule reinforcing protections for doctors and other health care workers who conscientiously object and refuse to perform abortions or other procedures due to religious or moral objections. 

Under existing federal law, health institutions are not permitted to discriminate against individuals who refuse to perform abortions or refer patients to abortion providers.  According to administration officials, this new rule ensures that federal funds do not go to providers who violate those laws by requiring recipients of federal funding to certify their compliance with laws protecting conscience rights.

Despite multiple laws on the books protecting health providers, the administration argued that the rule was needed “to raise awareness of federal conscience protections and provide for their enforcement.”  Critics say the protections are so broad they limit a patient’s right to get care and accurate information; they fear the rule could make it possible for a pharmacy clerk to refuse to sell birth control pills without ramifications from an employer.

The rule will take effect on Jan. 18, two days before Obama takes office.  The Obama administration could issue new regulations that would trump these recently passed rules.

Maryland Introduces Health Care Reform Legislation

According to the Washington Post, public health advocates in Maryland unveiled a $15.5 billion plan for universal health care.  The plan would subsidize insurance coverage for low-income residents with a payroll tax and increases to cigarette and alcohol taxes.

The plan would also allow small businesses and individuals to join an insurance pool, giving them leverage to negotiate lower rates for policies than on their own.  The state of Maryland itself would cover the costs of catastrophic care and patients would face higher co-payments for less effective and more expensive procedures.

Lawmakers and advocates both acknowledge that the plan has no chance for passage soon, but hope that this is a step towards future health care reform.

Senator Baucus to Take the Lead on Health Care Reform

Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has unveiled his plan to guarantee health insurance for all Americans.  In contrast to the plan put forward by Senator John McCain during his presidential bid, which favored individual purchases of health care in the market rather than through an employer, Senator Baucus aims to encourage insurance through employment.  Senator Baucus also proposes to expand Medicaid and Medicare.  Senator Baucus’s plan would eventually require everyone to have health insurance coverage, with federal subsidies for those who could not otherwise afford it.

“Every American has a right to affordable, high-quality health care,” Mr. Baucus said. “Americans cannot wait any longer.”

Other Democrats, such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representatives John D. Dingell of Michigan and Pete Stark of California, are also drafting plans to expand insurance coverage and contain health care costs.

Read more about Senator Baucus’s plan, after the jump. Continue reading

Federal Panel Recommends Vaccine Aimed at Smokers

The Washington Post is reporting that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an influential government panel, has recommended that smokers get the pneumoccal vaccine.   The pneumoccal vaccine, already recommended for people 65 years of age or older,  is supposed to prevent pneumonia, meningitis and other illnesses.  The vaccine is given as a one-time dose and is supposed to last for 5-10 years.  Read more about this decision after the jump. Continue reading

News Brief: Global Health Law News Updates

A criminal trial of three men accused of deliberately infecting at least 14 other men with HIV is now underway.  The prosecution accuses the men of promoting sex parties on the internet, then drugging and raping their guests, and injecting them with HIV-infected blood.  Twelve alleged victims have since tested positive for HIV. BBC

Both presidential nominees Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama promised to support investments to improve global health. They pledged to enhance funding to reduce maternal and infant mortality, to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria around the world. Voice of America News

Barbara Hogan, South Africa’s new Health Minister, would like to see a renewed global effort to find an HIV vaccine. This position is a market contrast to that of South Africa’s former Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and suggested healthy eating as an HIV treatment alternative to anti-retroviral drugs.  BBC

The Sabiny community in Uganda passed a law to ban female circumcision.  The Sabiny are the only group in Uganda that practise FGM.  The council had submitted legislation to parliament for the ban to become law nationwide. BBC

Nigeria is closer to eradicating polio thanks, in large part, to a new, more effective vaccine that is four times more effective than the previous widely-used vaccine. 

Nigeria is one of only four countries in the world where polio has yet to be eliminated. The monovalent oral poliovirus vaccine, known as mOPV1, has been used in Nigeria since February 2006 and the number of reported cases of polio in the country fell by 75% between 2006 and 2007.  BBC

According to a WHO report, life expectancies can vary by up to 40 years among poor and rich countries.  These inequalities are due to a number of factors, including access to primary care and childbirth care. BBC

5000 year-old skeletal remains of a mother and her baby found in a watery grave in Israel are earliest confirmation of TB.  Scientists were able to discern, based on the size of the infant’s bones, and the extent of TB damage, that the mother likely passed the disease to her baby shortly after birth. BBC