The story is an overview of a recent study that found the use of the smoking cessation drug Chantix (varenicline) increased the likelihood that smokers would be able to quit smoking, even if the drug treatment regimen was begun before the smoker had set a “quit date” for when they would stop smoking. The story is exceptionally strong at addressing both the quality of the evidence and the potential side effects of the drug. We wish it had addressed costs, delivered a truly independent perspective, and discussed similar medications that have been shown to offer some benefit.
As we noted in our review of the New York Times story, smoking is a major health problem in the United States. The CDC reports that approximately one in five deaths in the United States is tied to smoking-related health effects. Smoking is linked to a significant increase in health risks related to heart disease, cancer, and stroke. These health problems come with a high economic cost. The CDC estimates that smoking is responsible for “at least $133 billion for direct medical care of adults and more than $156 billion in lost productivity” in the U.S. Anything that can help smokers kick the habit has the potential to significantly benefit both public health and the economy.
The story does not tell us how much the smoking cessation drug costs or whether insurance companies will pay for it.
There are two ways to think about benefits in a story like this one: the benefit of quitting smoking and the benefit of using the smoking cessation drug. The story thoroughly addresses both. First, the story tells readers exactly how much more likely people were to quit smoking when using the drug (compared to those using a placebo) — and that they were able to stay smoke-free for up to a year. Second, the story offers some specifics on how quitting smoking reduces health risks. For example, the story states: “Ten years after quitting [smoking], the risk of lung cancer drops by half, according to the CDC.”
Another area where the story excelled is in characterizing the motivation level of the study participants. It noted that they wanted to quit and were willing to start reducing their cigarette consumption — they just couldn’t “go cold turkey.” The competing Times piece wasn’t as clear on that point.
The story spends several paragraphs discussing potential side effects associated with Chantix — including the fact that the FDA has placed its black box warning on the drug in light of its possible neuropsychological effects. The story does not mention concerns related to possible cardiovascular health effects that were raised by the FDA in 2012.
The story does an exceptionally good job of clearly describing the study and its findings — including breaking down how study participants responded to treatment (or to the placebo) at various points in time over the length of the study.
No disease mongering here.
The story notes that Chantix is made by Pfizer — but does not tell readers that Pfizer funded the study. Also, the story quotes two experts. One is an author of the study. The other is Dr. Caryn Lerman of Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center. According to declarations in her published work, Lerman has served as a consultant/advisor to Pfizer regarding medications for nicotine dependence. The story would have benefited from including an expert without (real or perceived) ties to Pfizer.
The story does discuss (albeit briefly) alternatives such as nicotine gum and patches. However, the story does not discuss the fact that bupropion is a competing drug that has been used as an aid to gradual smoking reduction and cessation. This is an important omission. Additionally, the story would have added valuable context if it had discussed the actual success rates of people who try to quit smoking “cold turkey” or by using other treatment methods.
The story makes clear that Chantix is already available in the U.S. and elsewhere.
The story notes (quoting Dr. Lerman): “This is the first study of its kind to enroll a group of smokers who are not traditionally enrolled in clinical trials because they are not ready to quit.” While it’s true that this seems to be the first such study involving Chantix, nicotine replacement products and bupropion have both been studied in this context. Since we’ve already penalized the story for this omission above under “Alternatives,” we won’t do so again here.
The release include quotes and additional background material that go well beyond JAMA’s news release on the study.