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U.S. News & World Report story on COPD and vitamin A left us wondering ‘what’s the news?’

Rating

4 Star

Tags

Can Vitamin A Help With My COPD?

Our Review Summary

The headline of this story asks, “Can vitamin A help with my COPD?” — which suggests that there might be good reason to think that popping a supplement or eating a lot of vitamin A-rich foods would be helpful for those with this condition (more formally known as “chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder”).

However, readers who make it to the end of the story eventually learn that there’s little if any scientific backing for this idea. It seems that vitamin A performs a lot of great functions in the body that make for healthy lungs (and other organs), and that low levels of vitamin A might contribute to the development of COPD in mice who are exposed to cigarette smoke. But according to the story, the only study that comes close to suggesting a treatment benefit for vitamin A on COPD was conducted in mice studied some 20 years ago. So why is a news magazine exploring this topic now? It’s not clear.

 

Why This Matters

The bottom line message here — there’s “not enough evidence” to support vitamin A supplements for COPD — is a good one. And the story includes good information about the physiologic effects of vitamin A and the risks of an overdose. Our main concern is that the headline specifically targets people with COPD who are likely to be searching for treatment information, whereas the text itself fails to make the case that there is relevant news for these patients. This disconnect may leave some readers feeling like the victims of a bait-and-switch.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The story doesn’t discuss the costs associated with vitamin A. However, since the vitamin is readily available in foods and relatively low-cost supplements, we won’t dock points for this omission. We’ll rate it Not Applicable.

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

Not Satisfactory

The potential benefits of vitamin A — whether for the treatment of COPD or lung health in general — are never established in numerical terms. In part, that’s because the story doesn’t reference any human research showing that vitamin A confers such benefits.

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

Satisfactory

This is a strong point in the story. It closes with a description of the harms of too much vitamin A. However, instead of advising readers, somewhat vaguely, “not to overdo it with vitamin A supplements,” it would have been helpful to describe intake levels that might lead to overdose. And are there supplements on the market that contain vitamin A at concentrations that could be considered dangerous? Some clarification on this point would have been welcome.

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

Satisfactory

Although we’re rating this borderline satisfactory, we feel there is a mismatch between the headline and the body text of the story. The headline asks, “Can Vitamin A Help With My COPD?” but the story doesn’t reference any recent research that would come close to answering that question. We learn about research showing that vitamin A is important for the development of healthy lungs and that vitamin A depletion from smoking may contribute to the development of COPD. However, on the headline question — Can vitamin A help treat COPD? — the closest we get is a very preliminary mouse study from 1997 that suggests a possible benefit from vitamin A supplementation.

To its credit, the story does acknowledge that this animal study from 20 years ago provides “absolutely no evidence that Vitamin A supplementation is useful in treating lung disorders.”  But if that’s the case, and there’s no newer research to talk about, why write a story that teases readers with the prospect of treatment benefits from vitamin A?

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t disease-monger.

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

Satisfactory

The story cites numerous studies and quotes Dr. Antonello Punturieri, program director for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/environment at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. There are no apparent conflicts of interest to disclose.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Treatments for COPD may include medications, oxygen therapy, and (in severe cases) surgery. None of these are discussed in the story.

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

Satisfactory

The story explains that vitamin A is available in supplements and a variety of foods.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

It’s not clear why this story is being written now. The research that most directly addresses the question of whether vitamin A can help with COPD was apparently conducted 20 years ago. Is there anything more recent? If not, why are we talking about it? Otherwise, readers are left to wonder if they missed the “news” part of the story.

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

Satisfactory

The story includes multiple sources and clearly goes beyond any news release.

Total Score: 6 of 9 Satisfactory

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