Starting with the headline, any suggestion that this drug has been shown to “curb problem drinking” is not supported by this study. This story does not make clear to readers what information comes from the research that is the main subject and what comes from unrelated research or anecdotes. It doesn’t put the research into the effects of Chantix on people who drink into context with existing drug treatments given to some people with alcohol problems. The story does provide cost and side effect information.
Overall, this is making news out of a small study of the short-term (only hours) effects of a drug on the way alcohol affects human physiology. One could question the newsworthiness of this story about such a small, short-term study.
News stories should make clear what’s news and what’s background. This story confuses things by trying to transform research into how people feel when they mix Chantix and alcohol into an advance in knowledge about how to reduce alcohol consumption, which this research did not test.
Many alcoholics smoke. A magic bullet that helps both addictions would indeed be big news. While Chantix is probably effective in improving quit-rates among smokers, it has not been shown to affect drinking. This small, short-term study in humans is only a first step in exploring how Chantix might affect drinkers.
The story reports that Chantix costs about $3 per pill.
The lead of the story misstates the results of the study. These researchers measured how a few participants felt after taking Chantix or a placebo and drinking alcohol or a placebo drink. They found that overall the participants did not feel as good after drinking a low dose of alcohol, if they had taken a Chantix pill earlier. However, they didn’t see the same difference with higher doses of alcohol. This test did not look at whether these people voluntarily would change the amount of alcohol they drank when they took Chantix. The story headline and lead both focus on the possibility that Chantix could curb problem drinking. Although some other reports indicate people taking Chantix might drink less that is not what this test looked at.
The story does report that Chantix carries a “black box” warning and that there are concerns about depression, suicidal thoughts, and the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
The story does note that this test included only 15 people. But it doesn’t remind readers of the limitations in trying to draw conclusions from such a limited sample size.
It also points out the researchers are not studying whether Chantix can help problem drinkers. But even though the story’s headline and lead refer to “problem drinkers,” readers are not told that although the participants were considered heavy social drinkers and did smoke some, they were not considered either problem drinkers nor addicted to cigarettes.
The story also confuses readers by interchanging endpoints, sometimes referring to reducing alcohol consumption, sometimes talking about how people respond to alcohol.
The researchers wrote that this test helps define how people respond to alcohol after taking Chantix. The test did not look at whether Chantix helps people drink less. The story switches back and forth between background from other studies and reports about Chantix and alcohol consumption and the results of this specific test of the specific types of negative feelings produced by combining Chantix and alcohol.
The story notes that it “remains to be seen” whether Chantix might ever be recommended to help problem drinkers. However, the overall tone is that the drug could be useful, a message which may encourage people to try using the drug even though this test does not provide evidence that it works to curb alcohol consumption.
More important is this point: The source research study excluded alcoholics. Because the news article refers to the effect of Chantix on “problem drinkers” without defining what that means, and includes speculation that there might be a “niche” for this drug for those with “alcohol-dependence issues,” the reader would be expected to think this article might apply to alcoholics.
The story does include an independent source. There was no disclosure statement included with the preview copy of the research article, so it is not known whether any of the researchers have ties to Pfizer (the maker of Chantix) or other pharmaceutical companies in this area.
There is no reference to alternatives other than comments from one source that “that new ways of treating alcoholism are much needed.” It could have told readers about naltrexone, acamprosate, or disulfiram, which are already approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol dependence (alcoholism). There is no mention of the role of behavioral and psychiatric treatments as alternative or adjunctive care for alcoholics.
It is clear that Chantix is currently available to help smokers quit.
As mentioned above, other drugs are already used to treat alcohol addiction. Readers of this story should have been given that background.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.