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US CONSUMER SPENDING UP WEAK 0.1 PERCENT IN JULY

Friday, 30 August 2013 09:05 Published in National News
WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. consumers barely increased their spending in July as their income grew more slowly, held back in part by steep government spending cuts that reduced federal workers' salaries. The tepid gains suggest economic growth is off to a weak start in the July-September quarter.

The Commerce Department said Friday that consumer spending rose just 0.1 percent in July from the previous month. That's slower than June's 0.6 percent increase. Consumers cut their spending on long-lasting manufactured goods, such as cars and appliances. Spending on services was unchanged.

Income rose 0.1 percent in July following a 0.3 percent June gain. Overall wages and salaries tumbled $21.8 billion from June — a third of the decline came from forced furloughs of federal workers.

Consumers' spending drives roughly 70 percent of economic activity. The weak spending report led some economists to sound a more pessimistic note about economic growth in the current July-September quarter. It follows July data showing steep drops in orders for long-lasting manufactured goods and new-home sales.

"This is a disappointing report on a number of levels," said James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics. "Prospects for a pickup in economic growth in the third quarter hinge on a broad-based acceleration in spending by households and business to offset the ongoing drag from government. The data for the first month of the quarter are not following this script."

Several analysts said that economic growth is unlikely to match the 2.5 percent annual rate reported Thursday for the April-June quarter. That was more than twice the growth rate in the first quarter and far above an initial estimate of a 1.7 percent rate for April through June.

Marple predicts third-quarter growth will fall around 2 percent, perhaps even lower.

The Federal Reserve will consider the consumer spending and income data at its September meeting, when it decides whether to begin slowing its $85 billion a month in bond purchases. The bond purchases have helped keep long-term borrowing rates low.

But the most critical factor that the Fed will weigh is the August employment report, which will be released next Friday. It's the final jobs report before the Fed meets.

Another concern is that rising interest rates could dampen consumer spending, particularly on homes and cars. Mortgage rates have already risen more than a full percentage point since May.

In July, the savings rate was unchanged at 4.4 percent of after-tax income. That was the smallest since the rate had been 4.3 percent in March.

The small rise in spending was driven by a 0.8 percent gain in purchases of nondurable goods, such as clothing. Purchases of durable goods such as autos fell 0.2 percent and purchases of services such as utilities and doctor's visits were unchanged in July.

A price gauge tied to consumer spending was up a small 0.1 percent in July compared to June. Prices excluding volatile food and energy are up just 1.4 percent compared to a year ago, significantly below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target for inflation.

US FINDS ITSELF WITH ONLY 1 SYRIA PARTNER: FRANCE

Friday, 30 August 2013 09:02 Published in National News
PARIS (AP) — The United States found itself Friday with France as its only major partner in a potential strike against Syria, after a stunning rejection of military force in Parliament forced Britain, America's staunchest ally, to pull out of any operation.

The collapse of British support for a mission to punish Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons puts pressure on President Barack Obama as resistance grows at home — and comes with the irony that France was the most vocal critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

French President Francois Hollande pledged backing for a potential American operation to hit the Damascus regime.

"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," Hollande said in an interview published Friday by the newspaper Le Monde, as U.N. experts in Damascus began what is expected to be the last day of their probe into the alleged attack.

Amid the turmoil of a British "no" and mounting American skepticism, Obama appeared undeterred in his desire to punish Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and advisers said he would be willing to retaliate against Syria on his own.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking from Manila, Philippines, issued an impassioned defense of the principles behind the planned strike.

"I don't know of any responsible government around the world ... that has not spoken out in violent opposition to the use of chemical weapons on innocent people," Hagel said, adding that such attacks violate basic standards of decency.

He said that Washington would continue to seek partners in its Syria mission: "Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together."

On Thursday, the U.S. administration shared intelligence with lawmakers in an effort to persuade them that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.

In Damascus, shops and supermarkets filled with people stocking up on bread, canned food and other necessities ahead of the expected strikes, although there appeared to be no signs of panic or food shortages. Prices have shot up because of the high demand, residents complained.

Kheireddine Nahleh, a 53-year-old government employee, put on a brave face.

"We got used to the sound of shelling," he said. "Death is the same, be it with a mortar or with an American missile. I'm not afraid."

On the last expected day of chemical weapons inspections, three U.N. vehicles headed out for more on-site visits, following an early morning delay.

The U.N. has said the inspectors will wrap up their investigation Friday and leave Syria for the Hague, Netherlands, on Saturday. Some of the experts will travel to laboratories in Europe to deliver the material they've collected this week during trips to the Damascus suburbs purportedly hit by toxic gas.

Russia, which as a firm backer of the Assad regime is fiercely hostile to military intervention, expressed bewilderment Friday at why the U.N. team was leaving so soon.

"We don't quite understand why the entire team had to be going back to the Hague when there are many questions about a possible use of chemical weapons in other areas in Syria," said Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy adviser.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said the timing reflected the urgency of getting any samples to laboratories, noting that the inspectors must do that themselves to "ensure the chain of custody." He said the inspectors intend to return to Syria to investigate other alleged attacks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that military strikes would lead to long-term destabilization of Syria and the region. He has spoken against any use of force without U.N. Security Council approval, which he said would be a "crude violation of international law." Russia has remained a strong ally of Syria throughout the civil war, which has left more than 100,000 people dead.

In Paris, Hollande suggested that action could even come ahead of Wednesday's extraordinary session of the French Parliament, called to discuss the Syria situation; lawmakers' approval is not needed for Hollande to order military action.

"I will not take a decision before having all the elements that would justify it," he told Le Monde. However, noting that he had convened parliament, he added: "And if I have (already) committed France, the government will inform (lawmakers) of the means and objectives."

The British parliament voted late Thursday against military action in Syria, whittling down the core of the planned coalition to the United States and France. Italy and Germany have said they won't take part in any military action that doesn't have Security Council backing.

Hollande said that France is among the few nations capable of "inflicting a sanction by the appropriate means" and "it is ready." A decision will be made in close coordination with allies, he said.

France has historic ties to Syria, having once ruled the country; it also has warplanes and strategic interest in the region. Paris has embraced the Syrian opposition and urged a firm response against Assad over the purported Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.

French military analysts say France's most likely role would be from the air, including use of Scalp cruise missiles that have a range of about 500 kilometers (300 miles), fired from Mirage and Rafale fighter jets. French fighters could likely fly directly from mainland France — much as they did at the start of a military campaign against Islamic radicals in Mali earlier this year — with support from refueling aircraft. France also has six Rafale jets at Al Dhafra air base, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf, and 7 Mirage-2000 jets at an air base in Djibouti, on the Red Sea.

Hollande reiterated that any action is aimed at punishing Assad, not toppling him.

"I won't talk of war, but of a sanction for a monstrous violation of the human person," he said. "It will have a dissuasive value."

___ Angela Charlton in Paris, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report. ___ Follow Ganley on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/Elaine_Ganley

J&J LAUNCHES NEW CAP TO CURB TYLENOL OVERDOSES

Friday, 30 August 2013 08:57 Published in Health & Fitness
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bottles of Tylenol sold in the U.S. will soon bear red warnings alerting users to the potentially fatal risks of taking too much of the popular pain reliever. The unusual step, disclosed by the company that makes Tylenol, comes amid a growing number of lawsuits and pressure from the federal government that could have widespread ramifications for a medicine taken by millions of people every day.

Johnson & Johnson says the warning will appear on the cap of new bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol sold in the U.S. starting in October and on most other Tylenol bottles in coming months. The warning will make it explicitly clear that the over-the-counter drug contains acetaminophen, a pain-relieving ingredient that is the nation's leading cause of sudden liver failure.

"We're always looking for ways to better communicate information to patients and consumers," says Dr. Edwin Kuffner, vice president of McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the Johnson & Johnson unit that makes Tylenol.

Overdoses from acetaminophen send 55,000 to 80,000 people in the U.S. to the emergency room each year and kill at least 500, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Acetaminophen can be found in more than 600 over-the-counter and prescription products used by nearly one in four American adults every week, including household brands like Nyquil cold formula, Excedrin pain tablets and Sudafed sinus pills.

Tylenol is the first of these products to include such a warning label on the bottle cap. McNeil says the warning is a result of research into the misuse of Tylenol by consumers. The new cap message will read: "CONTAINS ACETAMINOPHEN" and "ALWAYS READ THE LABEL."

The move comes at a critical time for the company, which faces more than 85 personal injury lawsuits in federal court that blame Tylenol for liver injuries and deaths. At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration is drafting long-awaited safety proposals that could curtail the use of Tylenol and other acetaminophen products.

Much is at stake for McNeil and its parent company. Johnson & Johnson does not report sales of Tylenol, but total sales of all over-the-counter medicines containing acetaminophen were more than $1.75 billion last year, according to Information Resources Inc., a retail data service.

Safety experts are most concerned about "extra-strength" versions of Tylenol and other pain relievers with acetaminophen found in drugstores. A typical two-pill dose of Extra Strength Tylenol contains 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen, compared with 650 milligrams for regular strength. Extra Strength Tylenol is so popular that some pharmacies don't even stock regular strength.

Most experts agree that acetaminophen is safe when used as directed, which generally means taking 4,000 milligrams, or eight pills of Extra Strength Tylenol or less, a day.

Each year, some 100 million Americans use acetaminophen, but liver damage occurs in only a fraction of 1 percent of users. Still, liver specialists say those cases are preventable. Part of the problem, they say, is that there are sometimes hundreds of pills in a bottle, making it easy for consumers to pop as many as they please. For example, McNeil sells Extra Strength Tylenol in bottles containing up to 325 tablets

"The argument goes that if you take acetaminophen correctly you will virtually never get into trouble," says Dr. William Lee of the UT Southwestern Medical Center, who has studied acetaminophen toxicity for four decades. "But it's the very fact that it's easily accessible over-the-counter in bottles of 300 pills or more that puts people in harm's way."

Lee applauded the new warning, but said McNeil's marketing has contributed to the "freewheeling" way that Americans take the drug. For decades, McNeil has advertised Tylenol as "the safest kind of pain reliever" when used as directed. "That has been their standard ploy in the past, and I would argue that safest it is not," he says.

McNeil's Kuffner stands by the company's safety claim: "When taken as directed, when people read and follow the label, I believe that Tylenol and the acetaminophen ingredient is one of the safest pain relievers on the market."

McNeil is the only major drugmaker adopting the bottle cap warning at this time, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group for over-the-counter medicine companies.

"While this is not an industrywide initiative at this time, it fits squarely within the many ongoing industrywide educational initiatives to further acetaminophen safe and responsible use by consumers," said Emily Skor, a vice president with the trade group, which represents McNeil, Bayer Healthcare, Procter & Gamble and other nonprescription drugmakers.

20 YEARS OF WARNINGS

McNeil has updated the safety warnings on Tylenol periodically since the 1990s.

In 1994, the company added a warning about the risk of liver damage when combining alcohol with Tylenol following a lawsuit brought by Antonio Benedi, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, who fell into a coma and underwent emergency liver transplant after mixing Tylenol with wine at dinner.

A jury awarded him $8.8 million in damages after concluding that McNeil failed to warn consumers about the risk. The FDA made the alcohol warning mandatory for all manufacturers of acetaminophen in 1998.

Then, in 2002, an expert panel of FDA advisers recommended that the government agency require all acetaminophen products to carry a warning about the risk of "severe liver damage" when not taken as directed. The group's votes are non-binding, though the FDA usually follows them. McNeil voluntarily added the warning to its products in 2004, five years before the FDA made it mandatory.

Today, McNeil appears to be moving ahead of regulators again. In 2009, the FDA assembled another expert panel to consider more sweeping changes to reduce acetaminophen overdoses. The panel recommended a half-dozen major changes, including lowering the maximum nonprescription daily dose for adults. McNeil voluntarily adopted that recommendation, lowering the recommended adult dose of Extra Strength Tylenol to 3,000 milligrams per day, or six pills of Extra Strength Tylenol, down from 4,000 milligrams per day, or eight pills. The label stipulates that patients can still take a higher dose under doctor's directions.

But the company has not embraced a more drastic recommendation by the FDA's expert panel: eliminating the over-the-counter "extra-strength" formulation altogether, which would mean lowering the acetaminophen dose from 1,000 milligrams to 650 milligrams, or two tablets of 325 milligrams each. The panel said the 1,000 milligram dose should only be available via prescription.

McNeil argues that the lower dose is less effective and could drive people to take anti-inflammatory pain relievers, a different class of drugs that includes aspirin and ibuprofen. Those medicines can cause stomach ulcers and dangerous gastrointestinal bleeding.

FDA spokeswoman Erica Jefferson says the agency is actively working on new rules for both children and adult acetaminophen products. While the agency won't give a timeframe for completion, the federal government's website that tracks new regulations lists December as the target date for publishing the proposed rules.

As early as 1977, FDA advisers recommended adding more warnings to the acetaminophen label about liver damage, but the agency didn't require the language until 2009.

"They are very slow to respond to these things and it's always a little frustrating," says Dr. Lewis Nelson of New York University, who chaired the 2009 FDA panel.

ANATOMY OF AN OVERDOSE

Experts first identified acetaminophen overdose as a major public health concern in the 1990s, but it has taken years to form a clearer picture of the problem.

Acetaminophen overdoses occur when the liver is overwhelmed by too much of the drug, producing a toxic byproduct that kills liver cells. Liver failure occurs when most cells are no longer able to function. At that point, a patient then generally has 24 to 48 hours to live without a transplant.

Of the roughly 500 acetaminophen deaths reported annually, about half are accidental, with the rest deemed suicides. About 60 percent of the unintentional overdoses involve prescription opioid-acetaminophen combination drugs such as Percocet and Vicodin, according to a database of liver failure cases run by Dr. Lee at the Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Those two products alone were prescribed more than 173 million times last year, according to IMS Health.

So how do these accidental acetaminophen deaths occur? Imagine you've had major dental surgery, and your dentist prescribes a five-day supply of Percocet. You take the recommended two pills every six hours for 2,600 milligrams of acetaminophen, well below the 4,000-milligram-a-day safety threshold.

But you're still experiencing pain, so you decide to add Extra Strength Tylenol, six caplets a day for another 3,000 milligrams. Now you're feeling better but you still have trouble sleeping, so you take Nyquil, for another 650 milligrams. After a few days on this 6,250 milligram regimen, experts say acute liver damage is a real risk.

The labels on all of these products warn against mixing them. But researchers say many consumers either don't read or don't understand such warnings.

Even after taking into account people who ignore labels, there are still cases of liver damage that stump researchers. These are the people who have apparently taken about 4,000 milligrams a day or less, well within the safety threshold.

"It's still a little bit of a puzzle," says Dr. Anne Larson, of the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. "Is it genetic predisposition? Are they claiming they took the right amount, but they really took more? It's difficult to know."

The question is critical in the lawsuits piling up against McNeil in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, near McNeil's headquarters in Fort Washington, Pa. Virtually all of the 85 cases claim that the plaintiffs suffered liver failure despite taking Tylenol as directed.

According to one of those complaints, Madeline Speal, of Salzburg, Pa., took Tylenol for three days in November 2009 "at appropriate times and in appropriate doses." But on Nov. 28, she was admitted to Latrobe Area Hospital with catastrophic liver damage. She was then transferred to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where she underwent an emergency liver transplant.

The cases against McNeil, which share the same legal wording, allege that the company risked the lives of consumers by making "conscious decisions not to redesign, re-label, warn or inform the unsuspecting consuming public."

The lawsuits have been consolidated under a single federal judge to streamline the pretrial process, though they will eventually be returned to judges in their original districts for trial.

J&J and McNeil continue to reiterate that Tylenol is safe. "We remain confident in the safety and efficacy of Tylenol products, which rightfully have been trusted by doctors, hospitals and consumers for more than 50 years," McNeil said in a statement.

But lawyers for the patients suing McNeil say Tylenol can still be dangerous even when used at or just above recommended levels.

"Products that are available to consumers should have a reasonable margin of safety," said Laurence Berman, one of several attorneys representing Tylenol users.

© 2013 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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