Controversial Alcoholism Treatment Highlighted On Megyn Kelly’s Show

By Keri Blakinger 07/24/17

The harm reduction approach for alcohol use disorder has been a polarizing issue within the recovery community. 

"Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly" correspondent Craig Melvin interviewing Marisa about The Sinclair Method,
"Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly" correspondent Craig Melvin interviewing Marisa about The Sinclair Method,

Amid plunging ratings and mounting criticism of guest choices, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly this week featured a segment on a controversial approach to treating alcoholism. 

The Sinclair Method, a harm reduction-style treatment that allows patients to continue drinking, got a close―and largely glowing―look on the show. 

The Sunday segment opens by introducing viewers to Marisa, who correspondent Craig Melvin tells us is a 25-year-old binge drinker. Melvin and a crew then follow Marisa around for day one of her introduction to The Sinclair Method.

First, she visits a doctor. Then, she fills a prescription. Then, she has a drink.

“I feel like I could have another drink or not have another drink and be totally fine,” she nervously tells the camera. 

The apparent miracle pill is naltrexone, an opioid antagonist sometimes used to treat heroin addiction. Under The Sinclair Method, it’s used to treat alcoholism.

“The drug blocks pleasure receptors in the brain―a buzzkill,” Melvin explains in a voiceover. “And when combined with psychotherapy sessions, the theory goes, eventually the cravings go away.”

The idea is that patients take the drug before drinking and, over time, it diminishes the desire to drink to excess. For Marisa, the unorthodox treatment seems to have worked; three months after starting the new regimen, she told NBC she had lost her drive to drink.

But it’s not an approach that traditional abstinence-based 12-step programs would typically be amenable to, as the show highlighted in an interview with Hazelden Betty Ford’s executive director, Chris Yadron. “The 12 steps are crucial because it’s a spiritual program of recovery,” he told Melvin.

Dr. Mark Willenbring―who once ran the NIH’s alcohol recovery research―defended evidence-based treatments that rely on modern science.

“We don’t send someone with diabetes to a spa for a month, teach them diet and exercise and then say, ‘Go to support groups, but don’t take insulin.’ I mean, that’s the absurdity of what we’re doing now,” he said. “We’re still providing the same pseudo treatment that we provided in 1950. And 85% of rehabs in the country are 12-step rehabs. People don’t have any choice.”

The tension between abstinence-based and harm reduction approaches to treatment has created a longstanding schism in recovery communities―and, unsurprisingly, the segment sparked discord in the Twitterverse as well.

“Watched your show for the first time tonight. Great show. I have alcohol issues and now I have maybe a place to get help,” wrote one user.

“This is very troublesome to see that some doctors are giving people with a thinking disease a "magic" pill,” tweeted another.

But some took the online reactions in a decidedly different direction: “Alcohol and drugs are the only things that will get me through this ‘presidency,’” one Twitter user wisecracked. 

“Megyn Kelly's show on NBC really shines a spotlight on nothing I care about,” wrote another.

Editor's Note: This article was edited to clarify that Dr. Willenbring supports evidence-based treatments and not specifically The Sinclair Method. TSM has never been tested in a randomized controlled trial, Dr. Willenbring said.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.