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Health Highlights: Jan. 4, 2016

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Oregon First State to Allow Birth Control Without Prescription

Oregon has become the first state to allow women to get birth control without a doctor's prescription.

The new law was signed into law last July by Gov. Kate Brown and took effect Jan. 1. California plans to do the same and U.S. senators in Colorado and Washington have both introduced version's of Oregon's new law, according to KOIN TV station in Portland.

In Oregon, women 18 and older can go into a pharmacy and complete a special health questionnaire. If everything is in order, the pharmacists will give them a prescription for birth control. Women younger than 18 still require a doctor's prescription, but that requirement will be removed within a few years, according to the news report.

A pharmacist can refuse to prescribe birth control for religious reasons, but must refer the patient somewhere else.

"Just having birth control accessible through a pharmacist doesn't mean preventative health care isn't important. That's not what this law is saying," said Dr. Alison Edelman, Oregon Health & Science University, KOIN reported.

The new law allows "increased access to women for something that's incredibly safe and a really big need for women," she added.

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First-of-a-Kind Drug Approvals on the Rise in U.S.

The number of first-of-a-kind drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015 was the highest in 19 years.

Last year, the agency approved 45 drugs with never-before-sold ingredients, a slight increase from the 41 approvals in 2014 and the highest number since 1996, the Associated Press reported.

The rising number of approvals for such drugs is the result of drug makers' increased focus on treatments for rare and hard-to-treat health problems. These drugs often get quicker FDA approval, and have stronger patent protections and higher price tags, the news service reported.

However, the increasing number of new specialty drugs could intensify the debate over rising prescription drug prices. The FDA can't consider prices when approving drugs, but some experts say the agency should, according to the AP.

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Hawaii Becomes First State to Raise Smoking Age to 21

Hawaii has become the first state to raise the legal smoking age to 21 for both traditional and electronic cigarettes.

State health officials hope the new law, effective Jan. 1, will make it harder for teenagers to try smoking or to develop the deadly habit, the Associated Press reported.

"In Hawaii, about one in four students in high school try their first cigarette each year, and one in three who get hooked will die prematurely," said Lola Irvin, administrator with the chronic disease prevention and health promotion division of the Hawaii Department of Health.

E-cigarettes were added to the legislation after officials saw the percentage of public high school students smoking the devices quadruple over four years, to 22 percent in 2015. Among middle schoolers, there was a sixfold increase in use during that same time period, to 12 percent in 2015, the AP reported.

More than 100 U.S. cities and counties have already raised the smoking age to 21, including New York City, according to the wire service.

Several military bases in Hawaii said they would comply with the new state law, the AP reported.


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