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In Brief

"In Brief" Continued...

Issue: "Global shame," June 15, 2002

Buckles beat air bags

The effectiveness of air bags may be a bit, well, inflated. A new study found them far less helpful than the traditional seat belt. A group of University of Washington researchers concluded that air bags "offer relatively little benefit in road vehicle crashes." Air bags alone reduced the risk of death by only about 8 percent-a statistic that pales behind the 65 percent drop just from wearing seat belts. Those protected by both devices face a risk of death 68 percent lower than those who use neither. "No matter what you see on television, you really need to buckle up," Peter Cummings, one of the researchers, told the Seattle Times. "Seat belts are really superior to air bags." Air bags quickly pop out of the dashboard (at speeds up to 200 mph) at impact. They are intended to prevent head and chest injuries during frontal impact. They entered widespread use starting with the 1987 model year and became mandatory in 1998 (for cars) and 1999 (for light trucks). They attracted controversy in recent years due to research showing that they are too strong for little kids and can cause head and neck injuries. Federal regulators started allowing deactivation switches in 1995 and many urged people to have children ride in the back seat. Since then, government statistics say the number of child fatalities from air bags dropped from 25 in 1996 down to six in 2000. - Chris Stamper

New and not improved?

Is a new drug always the best drug? The FDA approved hundreds of medications during the 1990s, but a controversial new study claims that only a few were serious innovations. This means many patients may be spending extra money on products that aren't worth the expense. The report by the National Institute for Health Care Management reviewed 1,035 drugs approved between 1989 and 2000 and concluded that only 153 were highly innovative drugs. "We are all under the impression that 'new and improved' is always much better," yet that's not always true, said Nancy Chockley, president of the institute. The same group reported in March that outpatient prescription drug spending totaled $154.5 billion in 2001, up from $131.9 billion in 2000. Much of the increase was from expensive drugs that have become brand names: Lipitor and Zocor for cholesterol, Vioxx and Celebrex for arthritis, and OxyContin for pain. The institute's prescription for rising costs is severe: Ms. Chockley wants the government to stop issuing patents for drugs that aren't significantly different from their predecessors. Drug makers disagree and argue that competing drugs give doctors and patients more options. Also, similar drugs may have different effects in different cases. The debate is sure to heat up as baby boomers age. Last month the AARP joined three lawsuits against six drug companies, claiming patent abuse, suppression of generic competition, and collusion to keep cheap medications off the market. - Chris Stamper


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