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Anti-smoking pill may help curb drinking


2 Star

Anti-smoking pill may help curb drinking

Our Review Summary

The drug described in the article, varenicline, is an FDA-approved medication for smoking cessation.  The article is an enthusiastic conjecture about the possibilty, suggested by a vaguely-described rat study, that this drug might work for alcohol dependence. The story suggests that there might be common neurochemical underpinnings for both smoking and drinking that a single drug might affect.  This is a big stretch even for the rats studied, let alone for humans.   The article also is vague about the distinction between any drinking, craving for drinking, and alcohol dependence ("alcoholism.")  There is no mention of the size or durability of the effect in rats, and much other basic information is lacking.  For example, a caution about side effects in humans would be reasonable, as would mention of approved treatments for alcohol dependence.   The article suggests that studies of this drug for human alcohol dependence would be reasonable, and it would be prudent for the reader to reserve any excitement about this drug until such studies are conducted and analyzed.  This article is interesting and exciting reading, but the implication that this medication may be an exciting treatment for alcohol problems is premature.

It’s worth nothing that even the drug maker was reluctant to project a future for the drug: "Without having considerable more data on this it would be very difficult for us to say we might pursue it or not. It’s almost a wait-and-see."

Perhaps the AP should have waited for more data as well, before projecting what could come from a single, not-well-explained rat study. 



Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story contained no cost information about this medication.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story indicates that this medication would be unlikely to work for all drinkers. This is, of course, a leap of faith as there are no studies published to date about how effective this medication is in helping alcoholics stops drinking, let alone whether it is effective. The story did not provide insight into how well this drug worked in the rats studied, making it more difficult to speculate how it might work for people.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no discussion about potential harms of treatment.

In the FDA’s press release about approval of this medication to help with smoking cessation, it lists nausea, headache, vomiting, flatulence (gas), insomnia, abnormal dreams, and dysgeusia (change in taste perception) as the most common side effects.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story stated that "New but preliminary research suggests it could gain a second use in helping heavy drinkers quit, too". This seems like a bit of an overstatement as the preliminary research was conducted in rats. There is no description of the number of rats studied, duration of the study, nor the magnitude nor duration of the effect.


Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

The article states that this drug may help "heavy drinkers" to quit drinking and also to help "people overcome addiction" and to curb "alcohol cravings."   Which is it?  All three?  How many "heavy drinkers" are there in the USA? How many alcoholics?  The article needs to define better what disease or behavior is targeted, and to help the reader to understand how common or rare the condition may be.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story quoted several researchers explicitly described as not being involved in the highlighted study.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story failed to mention currently available treatment options for alcohol dependence.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story correctly mentions that the featured medication, varenicline, sold as Chantix, has FDA approval for a different use. So while the drug is available, its use for the purpose discussed in the story has not yet been assessed in humans.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story is clear that this would represent a new use for an already approved medication.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to rely entirely on a press release, as it used several sources. However, the story provides the following quote from the scientist who led the study: "The biggest thrill is that this drug, which has already proved safe for people trying to stop smoking, is now a potential drug to fight alcohol dependence". This is the exact same quote in a press release from the University of California. Did the reporter actually interview her?  Did she just happen to say the exact same thing she said in the news release? 

Total Score: 4 of 10 Satisfactory


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