First, this story was a shortened version of the original Associated Press story (The Houston paper trimmed the last 9 paragraphs of the original.) Still, even as is, the article provided a very good outline of the results from a recently published study on a clinical trial designed to examine whether Topamax has merit for the treatment of alcoholism. It addressed every one of the criteria that we believe ought to be included in a story on a medical treatment. While presenting the potential for hope, the article was very grounded. It was clear to indicate that the medication had common side effects that were sufficiently noxious that 20% of the people taking the medication discontinued doing so. It was also apparent from the story that not everyone using the medication was successful at eliminating alcohol consumption. By providing numbers, it was also clear that the average number of drinks per day was only slightly less for those taking the medication than those taking the placebo.
The story provided an estimate for the cost of the treatment as well as the reminder that the costs for the doctor’s visit also needed to be factored in.
The story provided some idea of the magnitude of benefit from the use of this drug – significantly more people using this medication were able to abstain from drinking entirely for at least 28 days out of the 98 days of the study. Similarly, there was also a reduction of the average 11 drinks per day to 6 1/2 drinks per day for those using this medication as compared with 7 1/2 for those in the placebo group.
The inclusion of the anecdotal report of someone who remained sober years after taking the drug implies a duration of effect well beyond the duration of this study: 3 1/2 months. While there is no formal exaggeration of the effect, a cheery anecdote may falsely raise expectations in the reader.
The story did mention some of the unpleasant side effects that people taking the drug experienced; although it did not provide information about how frequently they occurred, it mentioned that 20% of the people dropped out of the study which provides a composite of sorts.
The story did a fine job reporting on the results of the study; it is clear from the story that only 15% of the people who took the drug quit drinking during the course of the study but that the difference in the average number of drinks per day though lower in the drug treated group, were really not very different than that of the placebo group.
While there is no "disease mongering" in the sense of exaggerating the scope of the problem, there is implication in this report that the drug under study is more widely applicable than the study demonstrates. The study author was quoted as saying you "can come in drinking a bottle of scotch a day and get treatment without detox." In this study, patients who experienced significant withdrawal symptoms with cessation were excluded, as were those who had multiple unsuccessful attempts in the past to stop drinking in inpatient programs.
Experts in the field who were not associated with this study were quoted in the story. In addition, the story clearly indicated that the study was funded by the maker of the drug.
Although the story did not name names, it did mention that there were three other medications currently approved for use in the treatment of alcoholism. The story couched one benefit for use of the study drug as something for people who want to see their "own doctors, rather than enter a rehab clinic to dry out." This is misleading as it makes it seem as though for the other medications currently approved for the treatment of alcoholism, it is necessary to attend a specialized alcohol treatment program.
The story did not mention any 12-step programs that some use for treating alcoholism.
The story made clear that the drug Topamax is not FDA approved for the treatment of alcoholism but that physicians are free to prescribe it for such use.
The story was clear that this is a new use for a prescription medication currently on the market for other uses.
Does not appear to rely on a press release.