Both stories had some strong elements, but MSNBC took the important step of bringing in independent commentary to help readers understand the possible import of the findings, the limitations of the study and the potential downsides to long term nicotine treatment.
Memory loss is one of the growing areas targeted by pharmaceutical companies for the next blockbuster drug. But there is a difference between getting older and forgetting a phone number and getting older and forgetting where you live. Reporting on any potential memory loss treatment needs to carefully distinguish between types of memory loss and the true nature of the research going into the treatment.
Neither of the stories we reviewed discussed costs. We found a range of prices online, including one big box pharmacy patch for roughly $2.70 a day.
Both stories quantified the benefits of nicotine patches by using percentages and not fully explaining what those percentages meant. (Note: we couldn’t find the percentages quoted in the journal article itself but they did appear in an American Academy of Neurology news release and in a a Vanderbilt news release.) This story gave a little more detail about the study design, which would allow readers to better understand what was being measured. Key line: “The nicotine may simply be improving symptoms and not helping with the actual disease.”
We thought the story was a little light on potential harms. The story mentions that patches have been shown to be safe for long-term use, but it also ends on a cautious note from an epidemiologist who says that nicotine is addictive.
Even the Vanderbilt news release was far more complete about harms observed:
“minor side effects like nausea and dizziness, similar to what a person would experience when smoking a cigarette for the first time, Newhouse said. Those on the nicotine patch also experienced mild weight loss, not surprising since nicotine is an appetite suppressant. There were also no withdrawal symptoms reported when the study participants stopped using the nicotine patch.”
We would have liked to have seen this story at least note what the TIME story noted, which is that there is some research that links nicotine to cancer.
This story does an adequate job in explaining the study design and explaining exactly how nicotine might be working to improve memory. We wish it had included one element from the TIME story and expanded on it: “when clinical experts rated overall change in the patients, they did not see a significant difference between the two groups.” That’s an important finding and, possibly, could have led to a different lead and headline for both stories.
The story does not engage in disease mongering, but we wish it had done a better job distinguishing between the technical term of mild cognitive impairment and forgetfulness.
We require two things for a story to get a satisfactory score on this criterion. Both TIME and MSNBC got only one of those elements – oddly each reporting a different one but not the other.
The story makes use of two independent sources. It did miss, though, the conflict of interest issues that TIME found, reporting that some of the authors on the study have received drug company funding and funding from tobacco makers. It also noted that the nicotine patches themselves were provided by Pfizer.
The story does not talk about any alternatives to nicotine patches, which is troubling. It says that “there are no medications approved to treat those symptoms.” But there are known techniques for improving memory that could have been given at least a passing mention.
We’ll rule this Not Applicable. The story should have made it clear the types of patches that were studied and the dosing. Most readers probably know that nicotine patches are widely available, but the types and doses vary.
With just one line, the story at least established that there has been other research in the field of nicotine and memory: “But there has been some research suggesting that nicotine might actually offer some protection to the cells being damaged by Alzheimer’s.” That’s more than what the TIME story provided.
Because it had independent sources, it’s clear that the story didn’t rely solely on a news release – although, as noted, the 46 percent improvement and 26 percent decline statistics appear to come from an American Academy of Neurology news release or a Vanderbilt news release. We could not find those stats in the study itself.