Chantix heart disease risk: Sun overstates risk from anti-smoking medication

July 06, 2011

The Sun's story on cardiovascular risks posed by smoking-cessation drug Chantix was an example of misleading statistics and careless journalism ("Chantix may cause more heart attacks than previously thought," July 5).

The article presents what sounds like a startling finding: Chantix may increase a person's risk of serious cardiovascular problems by 72 percent. However, the research on which the article was based tells a different story. The actual risk of a serious cardiovascular event was 0.82 percent in patients who took a placebo versus 1.06 percent in patients who took Chantix. This difference can be expressed in two ways. The Sun expressed it as a relative increase of 72 percent. While it is true that 1.06 is 72 percent higher than 0.82, the more meaningful and more easily understood statistic is the actual increase, which is 0.24 percentage points. (Chantix risk minus placebo risk.) The likelihood of a patient having a cardiovascular problem increases less than a quarter of one percent when taking Chantix.

The article further confuses things by quoting a former Chantix user who says this increase is "scary" and that she would stop recommending Chantix to "her heart patients." This person, who works in a hospital, is not a physician but an echocardiography technician and is not in a position to recommend medication to the patients she sees. This loose journalism further confuses the issue.

Is a 0.24 percentage point increase in cardiovascular risk tolerable for a drug that doubles your chance of quitting smoking? That is a question for individual patients and their doctors. Hopefully, the doctors will provide a more effective explanation of these risks than the one that appeared on the front page of The Sun.

Rachel Box, Baltimore

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