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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 12140

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Shelton DL.
Addiction treatment's effectiveness argued
Chicago Tribune 2007 Dec 9

Full text: CHICAGO – A costly drug cocktail touted as the first pharmacological treatment for cocaine and methamphetamine addiction is at the center of a national debate.

The treatment, Prometa, is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an addiction therapy, nor has it undergone extensive scientific testing.

But officials at Hythiam, the Los Angeles company that sells the treatment protocol, said it can work miracles for people struggling to break their addiction.

David Smart, of Federal Way, turned to Prometa when he hit rock bottom eight months ago. Smart had lost everything: his wife, his family, his job and his home.

By his estimate, he had failed at least two dozen times to overcome his methamphetamine addiction.

“I had tried everything, and nothing worked for me,” said Smart, 41. “But Prometa has.”

Mario Acosta Jr. also tried Prometa but relapsed within days of completing treatment.

“They told me it would work for everything,” said Acosta, 44, a San Pedro, Calif., longshoreman who was battling alcoholism and heroin addiction.

He took out a $5,000 loan to help pay for it. “What a waste of money that was,” he said.

As many as 3,000 people have tried Prometa, up from about 1,000 a year ago, a Hythiam spokesman said. Prometa first was offered in 2003 as the HANDS Protocols.

In addition to the drug cocktail that is the focus of the therapy, the treatment includes nutritional supplements and counseling.

But some treatment professionals said the company rushed to treat patients with Prometa before it had undergone greater scrutiny.

“I don’t think Prometa is a drug treatment for addiction; I think it’s a marketing scheme,” said Dr. Alex Stalcup, a California expert on methamphetamine addiction.

Some addiction experts said the treatment is reminiscent of controversial methods promoted in the past.

“There is an attempt to create hype before there is actual evidence, make a buck and move on,” said Chicago addiction specialist Dr. David Ostrow, who attended a meeting here organized by Hythiam last month.

Hythiam officials said the company’s attention-grabbing marketing shouldn’t be confused with its treatment.

“People are dying [from drug abuse], and this [treatment] seems to be making a dramatic difference,” said Dr. Matthew Torrington, medical director of the Prometa Center in Santa Monica, Calif., one of four such treatment centers.

Jim Pickett, chairman of the Chicago Crystal Meth Task Force, said Hythiam is pushing an untested treatment on people when they are at their lowest point. His outrage grew after he saw a full-page ad for Prometa in Gay Chicago Magazine.

“They are preying on vulnerable people,” Pickett said. “People in the throes of crystal-meth addiction – and their families – are extremely vulnerable, and they are taking advantage of it.”

Millions affected

Last year, an estimated 23 million Americans abused or were dependent on alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription medication, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. About 2.5 million sought help at specialty treatment facilities.

Experts agree controversy over Prometa has highlighted the need for effective medical treatments for addiction, especially for those hooked on meth, which has become a scourge in many rural areas. So far, the FDA has approved four drugs to treat alcoholism and three drugs to treat addiction to opiates.

It is Prometa’s cocktail of three medications – flumazenil, gabapentin and hydroxyzine – that is generating controversy.

Flumazenil reverses the sedative effects of general anesthesia and is used to treat overdoses caused by benzodiazepines such as Valium. Gabapentin is an antiseizure medication. Hydroxyzine, an antihistamine, also is used to treat anxiety.

The drug cocktail is being used “off label,” meaning the medications have been approved by the FDA to treat other disorders, but not addiction.

Hythiam doesn’t own or manufacture the drugs but said it owns the treatment protocol.

The protocol has been studied in three company-funded clinical trials. Two open-label studies reported fewer days of meth use and reduced cravings. Open-label studies are considered preliminary research.

A third study reported reduced cravings among Prometa users at the end of 30 days of treatment, compared with those who took a placebo. That study of Prometa was its first randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, considered the gold standard of medical research.

Critics question focus

Critics said the results were unimpressive and scoffed at the focus on self-reported cravings instead of drug abstinence.

“Everyone wants to see abstinence,” said Dr. Harold Urschel, chief executive of the Urschel Recovery Science Institute in Dallas, which conducted the research. Urschel also treats patients with Prometa under a licensing agreement with the company. “But that’s just one factor in treatment success.”

Company officials said additional studies under way will confirm the treatment’s effectiveness. Results from a study being conducted at UCLA are expected as early as next year.

Hythiam has opened treatment centers in Santa Monica, San Francisco, New Jersey and Florida, with plans to open more. Alcoholism treatment costs $13,000; cocaine and meth treatment costs $15,000.

Private insurance doesn’t cover Prometa, but Blue Cross Blue Shield plans in New York and New Jersey might do so, a Hythiam spokesman said.

The company also is seeking public funding to cover treatment of Medicaid patients, parolees and others. In the company’s last annual report, Chief Executive Terren Peizer said the company could eventually treat up to 5 million people in criminal-justice programs.

Criticism of such programs has mounted in recent weeks.

Last month, the Pierce County Council in Tacoma voted to end its funding of a Prometa pilot project for drug offenders after a report by county auditors concluded that there was no evidence that it worked. The company said the report was politically motivated.

Also last month, the Federal Way City Council approved spending $20,000 for a trial of the Prometa program.


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Email a Friend influence multinational corporations effectively, the efforts of governments will have to be complemented by others, notably the many voluntary organisations that have shown they can effectively represent society’s public-health interests…
A small group known as Healthy Skepticism; formerly the Medical Lobby for Appropriate Marketing) has consistently and insistently drawn the attention of producers to promotional malpractice, calling for (and often securing) correction. These organisations [Healthy Skepticism, Médecins Sans Frontières and Health Action International] are small, but they are capable; they bear malice towards no one, and they are inscrutably honest. If industry is indeed persuaded to face up to its social responsibilities in the coming years it may well be because of these associations and others like them.
- Dukes MN. Accountability of the pharmaceutical industry. Lancet. 2002 Nov 23; 360(9346)1682-4.