Panel Drops Objection

To Prostate Screenings

A government advisory panel has dropped its objection to routine prostate cancer screenings for millions of middle-aged and elderly men, saying it is possible the tests save lives.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force stopped short of recommending the exams, citing continuing uncertainty about their value. But it abandoned a 1996 opinion that said they are not effective enough to justify their cost.

Studies done over the past 10 years indicate that some and probably most tumors discovered during the screenings are so small and slow-growing they are unlikely to do any harm to patients, the panel said in today's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Some studies have indicated that when dangerous tumors do turn up, the death rates are generally the same among men who had regular screenings and those who didn't go to a doctor until they developed symptoms. Other studies have concluded that those who get the screenings have a higher survival rate.

Based on those mixed findings, the task force said there is not enough evidence to recommend either for or against routine screenings every year or two.

A number of groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association, already recommend that doctors discuss the pros and cons of screenings with their patients, and decide whether or not to do them on a case-by-case basis.

Doctors have argued over the screenings for a decade. Some say prostate cancer caught early can be treated before it spreads. Others believe the tests have led to thousands of unnecessary operations with side effects that can include impotence and urinary leakage.

About 57 percent of men over 50 had a blood test for prostate cancer last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 56 percent had a rectal examination for the disease, the CDC said.

Study Says Marijuana Is Not 'Gateway Drug' for Teens

Countering a basic principle of U.S. anti-drug policies, an independent U.S. study concluded yesterday that marijuana use does not lead teenagers to experiment with hard drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

The study by the private, nonprofit Rand Drug Policy Research Center rebutted the theory that marijuana acts as a so-called gateway drug to more harmful narcotics, a key argument against legalizing pot in the United States.

Using data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse between 1982 and 1994, the study concluded teenagers who took hard drugs were predisposed to do so whether they tried marijuana first or not.

The study, published in the British journal Addiction, does not advocate legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, but the researchers said the U.S. government should reconsider the prominence of marijuana in its much-publicized "war on drugs."

-- Compiled from reports by the Associated Press and Reuters