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Health Report: Parents Provide Best Defense Against Drug Abuse; Obesity May Lead To Cancer

In this week's edition of the RFE/RL Health Report, correspondent K.P. Foley reports on a new survey of young people who say they want their mothers and fathers to act like parents, not friends. This issue also includes an update on the worldwide effort to combat obesity and its associated burdens on society.


Experts Say Parental Involvement Key To Children's Behavior

Washington, 23 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As European health ministers and youth affairs ministers met in Stockholm to confront the problem of young people and alcohol abuse, a private American foundation concluded that parents provide the best defense against drug and alcohol abuse and smoking.

Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse presented its annual survey this week on the attitudes of youth towards substance abuse, and the organization says the results reinforce the view that strong parents make strong children.

The center conducts a survey each year of a sample of boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17. This year, 1,000 youths were questioned on the topics of smoking, drinking, and drug use.

Former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Joseph Califano is president of the center. He told reporters that the survey's results make clear that parents must not be afraid to make and enforce rules or be involved in the details of their child's life. Califano said mothers and fathers should be parents to their children and not -- using the American slang term for friends - pals.

"The loud and clear message of the survey is this: moms and dads should be parents to their children, not pals. Mothers and fathers who are parents rather than pals can greatly reduce the risk of their children smoking, drinking, and using drugs. They can counter negative media influences and the prevalence of marijuana and other drugs in a teen's world."

Califano said the center calls these mothers and fathers "hands-on," parents. That means they are parents who consistently set down rules and expectations for behavior and who monitor what their teen does.

The youth survey concluded that "hands-on" parents have teens at substantially lower risk of smoking, drinking, and using illegal drugs than the average teen.

Califano said it makes no difference whether a child lives with one parent or two.

"Whatever the family structure, whether the teen lives with both parents, a single mom or a single dad, their risk of smoking, drinking, or using illegal drugs in 'hands-on' households is dramatically lower than the risk for the average teen."


Experts See Link Between Obesity, Cancer

The World Health Organization (WHO) says obesity is now recognized as a disease in its own right. The United Nations agency also says there is "an escalating epidemic of overweight and obesity," in the industrialized countries of North America and Europe -- including Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

International experts have settled on a measurement called the Body Mass Index (BMI) for determining when a person is obese. The BMI is a ratio of weight to height and is obtained by dividing weight in kilograms by height in meters squared. A BMI of 30.0 is considered obese. Heredity may play some role in obesity, but experts agree that obesity is caused by consuming more kilocalories than the body needs for fuel. Excess kilocalories are stored as fat.

While obesity is considered a disease by itself, experts also see obesity as a risk factor for other conditions as well. The list includes heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Dr. Michael Thun of the American Cancer Society said in a recent interview that the general public needs to be made more aware of obesity's link to cancers.

"The harmful effects of obesity on cancer aren't widely recognized by the public."

He said, for example, that obesity may be linked to the development of breast cancer in post-menopausal women. He says fat cells can increase the exposure of breast cells to the hormone estrogen, which can lead to a proliferation of cells that might result in the growth of tumors.

Thun said obesity may also interfere with the way the body processes a substance called glucose, which may lead to overproduction of another hormone called insulin. Thun said that "insulin, along with related growth factors is a stimulus for the growth of tumor cells."

The WHO is more than a year into a major study of obesity's role in cancer development. The agency contends that changes in the daily diet could reduce cancer rates by 30 percent worldwide. The changes call for eating less fat and more fiber and increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables while reducing consumption of meat and dairy products.

Thun said public and private agencies also need to do more to help individuals learn how to control their weight.

"We need to develop ways that society can make it easier for people to maintain a healthy body weight much as we've developed ways to help kids from starting to smoke and adult smokers to quit."


Annan Calls For Global Anti-AIDS Commitment

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the worldwide AIDS epidemic is "the most formidable development challenge of our time." He's calling on governments to work for a global commitment for intensified and coordinated action.

Annan issued a statement this week along with a report in preparation for the General Assembly's special session on HIV and AIDS. The session will take place in New York from 25-27 June. Preparatory work for the meeting is to begin next week.

AIDS is the acronym for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a condition that leaves the body extremely vulnerable to a variety of ailments including cancers and respiratory disorders. There is no cure yet and AIDS is fatal. HIV, human immune deficiency virus, is the infection that can lead to the development of AIDS.

Annan said that a central challenge facing UN members is the development of strategies to alleviate the epidemic's social and economic impacts. He said that in many countries, AIDS has significantly undermined key sectors, including education, health, and agriculture.

The secretary-general noted that the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union now "present some of the most dramatic trends in the worldwide AIDS epidemic. He said the regions were previously characterized by low case loads. Now, he says the regions face "an extremely steep increase in the number of new infections," along the order of 700,000 cases by the end of last year.