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Chinese Herb Kudzu May Help Drinkers Cut Down

Rating

4 Star

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Chinese Herb Kudzu May Help Drinkers Cut Down

Our Review Summary

We especially enjoyed the comments of the independent expert quoted in the story, who identified important reasons to be cautious about the study and described himself as “hopeful but skeptical” about the new therapy. This strikes as a good perspective for everyone to have when it comes to unproven new treatment approaches.

The story would have been stronger with a more thorough discussion of potential harms and a more realistic appraisal of the likely cost of the possible treatment.

 

Why This Matters

Excessive alcohol use is associated with many health problems, including liver disease and cancer. It’s also a major cause of preventable death from violence and motor vehicle accidents. We might be able to reduce this toll by helping those drinking about healthy limits to drink less.

Even though more severe alcoholism is associated with worse consequences for the individual and family affected by the disease, heavy drinking, because it is so much more prevalent, may cause worse harm and costs to society more generally.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The reader is likely to come away confused on this point. The story states that currently available kudzu supplements cost about $6 for 3 weeks of treatment, but it didn’t clearly explain that these are not the same as the standardized extract tested in the study, which is not yet on the market and will likely cost much more if and when it is approved for sale.

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

Satisfactory

Nice job here. Instead of just telling us that the participants “drank less” while taking the supplement, they quantified the reduction: about one beer less, on average, during the experimental drinking sessions (2.4 vs. 3.5 beers), and about half a beer less per day during the week they were taking the supplement compared with placebo (3 vs. 3.4 beers).

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

Not Satisfactory

The story states that there were “no serious side effects” in the study, but one week of treatment in 10 people isn’t going to provide an adequate picture of the potential harms — a shortcoming the story should have alerted readers to. In addition, we were a little concerned by the notion that this supplement “may deliver alcohol to the brain’s reward center faster. So you get an effect sooner; therefore, you don’t drink as much.” Getting people drunker faster may well cut down on the amount of alcohol they consume in a night, but it might also result in unintended consequences like an increase in impaired driving or other risky behaviors. We think the story was too quick to give a free pass on safety without exploring some of these concerns.

The nature of a daily habit like drinking demands long-term treatment, thus increasing the time that side effect incidence could accumulate.

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

Satisfactory

The story does not yield to the impulse, so common in coverage of promising early studies, to overhype the findings. An independent expert is particularly skillful at pointing out the study’s limitations, including:

  • Tiny sample size (10 people)
  • No real understanding of how the drug might work
  • No sense as to whether people in real life would take the drug daily as they did in the study.

The description of the study’s methodology was also nicely detailed and easy to follow.

The article would have been strengthened by clarifying/emphasizing that this was a study of heavy drinkers who were not “alcoholic” and about whose desire to drink we know nothing.  There is an inappropriate implication that this may be a treatment for alcoholism as the investigator is quoted saying: “The medications approved for treating alcohol abuse and dependence don’t work for everyone.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There was no disease-mongering. The story pointed out that there is disagreement about what constitutes binge drinking, so it is not entirely clear who would be a candidate for treatment with this supplement.

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

Satisfactory

The story points out the extensive links between the manufacturer of the supplement and the study authors. It consults an independent expert who injects an important note of skepticism into the coverage.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story mentions that there are other medications approved for treating alcohol abuse and dependence, but they don’t work for everyone. Some additional detail about these medications wouldn’t have been out of place, but we’ll call it good enough for a satisfactory.

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

Satisfactory

We wish the story had been clearer about the difference between the standardized kudzu extract that was tested in the study, which apparently is not yet approved for sale, and the other kudzu supplements that are widely available. Why is it ok to sell some kudzu root preparations as dietary supplements, while other extracts need approval from the FDA as though they were drugs? The story never tells us.

This confusion notwithstanding, the info needed to fulfill the criterion was presented in the article for those willing to puzzle it out, so we’ll award a grudging satisfactory.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story mentions that kudzu is already touted as a hangover remedy and that studies of its effects have produced mixed findings.

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

Satisfactory

This story wasn’t based on a press release.

Total Score: 8 of 10 Satisfactory

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