This story offers an update on the use of Alli, the first non-prescription medication approved for weight loss. It relied heavily on interview material with two individuals who had first hand experience with this product. The first was a woman for whom the side effects of the medication outweighed any potential benefit she might have gained from its use. The second was a woman who was successful using this product to better enable her to meet her weight loss goal. But the story never mentioned that this same woman is featured in ads for the drug. (Did ABC allow the drugmaker to hand-pick a prize patient to profile?) But overall, featuring the woman whose experience with this product was negative did convey that weight loss with this product is not a sure thing.
Three other important flaws:
If a viewer had paper and pencil handy a viewer could have calculated cost, because the piece did mention that after its introduction, the sales of 2 million kits generated $217 million in sales. However, as that same viewer would have no idea about how long the contents of the ‘kit’ would last, this broadcast did not provide adequate information on costs of treatment. And that’s a big omission; costs are a very important issue for all drugs. They quote a woman saying the drug as not worth the expense, but failed to tell us what the expense was.
The report repeatedly uses the "50% more reduction of weight" statistic. But viewers should be told "50% of what?" It’s a classic misuse of the relative reduction when the absolute reduction is what is needed. People need to know that the drug company is talking about people losing an extra couple of pounds with Alli (plus diet and exercise) vs. diet and exercise alone. If the company and media would do a better job of reporting absolute differences, people could do a better job of judging the value of new treatments.
This piece was quite clear about the side effects of this product and also that not all consumers found it to be a useful tool for promoting weight loss.
The story should have mentioned that there is little evidence from published randomized trials to support Alli for weight loss. Alli is 1/2 the prescription strength of Xenical (orlistat) that has been extensively studied in randomized trials. Almost all of those studies used 120mg three times daily. Alli is 60 mg three times daily. Also, the story does not discuss that you would expect half the weight loss with Alli compared with Xenical. The story could also have addressed the frequency of gastrointestinal side effects with these drugs, as the medical literature does address this question directly.
The story did not engage in overt disease mongering.
Although the story included interview material with a nutritionist employed by the drug’s manufacturer, and interviewed a patient who appears in ads for the drug, the broadcast also included interview with several authorities knowledgeable about the science of weight loss.
Although the story alluded to the fact that there were medications available by prescription for weight loss, and it also commented on the use of diet and exercise independent of medication for weight loss, the story did not mention surgical procedures for weight loss.
The broadcast mentioned that this drug is available over-the-counter and while initially supplies in some locations were limited, it is now generally available at least at the larger national retailers.
This broadcast was clear that it was a follow-up story about the first non-prescription drug for weight loss.
The story turned to several sources, making it unlikely that it relied solely or largely on a news release. However, Jennifer Erickson, who is mentioned in the ABC story as a happy consumer of Alli, is actually featured in the Alli TV ad, although this fact is not mentioned in the ABC story. Did ABC allow the drugmaker to hand-pick a prize patient who appears in their ads?