“Good Morning America” slammed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) June 17 for “using combat vets as guinea pigs to test a controversial drug.” This report has already led to calls for congressional probes of the VA and its research – but ABC’s report left out half of the story.
The drug in question is a stop-smoking aid known as Chantix that ABC chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross claimed is a “drug linked to violent psychotic behavior, even suicide,” being used in a “potentially dangerous human drug experiment now being conducted on hundreds of combat vets.”
The patients were veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who were also smokers. ABC claimed that the veterans were not informed of any of the potentially harmful side effects of the drug.
“To do this with anyone is hard to understand, but especially war vets,” ABC’s Robin Roberts commented.
“With those vets especially, suffering the mental stress they have,” Ross agreed.
What Ross didn’t tell viewers in his “investigation” was that patients agreed to the treatment, and that the “experiment” was to determine the benefits or downsides of trying to stop smoking while being treated for PTSD.
“In our PTSD and smoking cessation study, our research is to learn if it is easier to stop smoking when smoking cessation treatment is combined with PTSD therapy, or whether the two therapies are more effective if they are provided separately,” the VA explained in a statement June 17.
“Participation in this program is voluntary, and all participants are closely monitored clinically by mental health professionals who provide smoking cessation methods patients agree to use,” the VA said.
ABC didn’t tell viewers those things. Instead, the program showcased a veteran named James Elliot who had been taking Chantix and had an episode where he left the house with a loaded gun, was approached by police and “taunted” them, ABC said. Elliott then claimed the smoking medicine had made him suicidal.
In an interview with Ross, Elliot said “lab rat, guinea pig, disposable hero,” apparently to describe himself.
ABC did include a doctor who said “there’s still no proof that Chantix caused Elliot’s problem.”
Still, the segment basically condemned a drug that was and still is FDA-approved. Stopping use of it for certain cases of adverse side effects would be throwing the baby out with the bath water, one doctor said. In an ABCNews.com article written by ABC’s Dan Childs, he cited Dr. Joseph DiFranza, professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, saying, “it would be premature to sound the alarm bell, particularly on a drug that he says has shown a great degree of effectiveness in helping smokers quit their deadly habit.”
DiFranza also suggested that the “spike in adverse events could be the results of lawyers soliciting for those who say they have been harmed by the drug,” according to Childs.
Childs slammed Pfizer, the company producing Chantix, for distributing a drug he claims is “dangerous.” The study Childs cited consisted of people taking Chantix for a year to determine possible side effects. The drug, however, is only meant to be taken for 12 weeks, according to a description of treatment on the Chantix Web site.
Also, after the Food and Drug Administration released information concerning the medicine’s possible side effects, the VA relayed the information, it said – despite ABC’s accusations to the contrary. On its Web site, the VA said:
“In November, 2007, FDA issued an ‘early communication’ to health care providers indicating concerns had arisen about the medication having a possible side effect involving mental health; VA immediately passed along that concern to practitioners at all of our medical centers. On February 1, FDA issued a ‘Public Health Advisory,’ to providers, providing more information on potential side effects of which clinicians and patients should be aware. VA distributed this alert to pharmacists in its system on that same day, and to researchers on February 5.”