On Tuesday, The Sydney Morning Herald announced the publication of research by the Smoking Cessation Research Unit at the University of Sydney that “shows that nicotine replacement therapy may have helped prevent 68,750 premature deaths over the past 10 years”. Other media lapped it up.

The “published research” was not an article published in a peer reviewed scientific journal, but rather a report by Renee Bittoun of the University’s Smoking Cessation Research Unit. This visually attractive document extols the virtues of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) on a backdrop of swirling smoke and bright pink boxes. An omission from the Fairfax story was the name of the report’s funder, GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare Australia Pty Ltd (GSK), a manufacturer of NRT.

In this report, Bittoun credits deaths due to smoking-related disease for half of the reduction of the smoking prevalence (500,000 smokers), while NRT is credited with saving the lives of a quarter of the remaining 275,000 ex-smokers (68,750). This figure is based on the assumption that a quarter of the remaining surviving non-smokers used NRT (no details are provided of the source of this data).

However, she also states that only a quarter of the smokers who used NRT would have achieved long-term abstinence (ie. three quarters relapse to smoking). Therefore, 51,562 of the 68,750 “ex-smokers” using NRT would actually be expected to have recommenced smoking.

Further, her estimates for the number of successful quitters using NRT of 21% in 1998 and 29% in 2007 do not correspond with other population-based surveys that suggest the figure is more likely around 14-15%.

The media should be wary of reporting self-published research that has not been held up to the scrutiny of peer review, which requires full disclosure of methods, sources of data and potential conflicts of interest.

Peter Fray

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