Suppose that 100 people with high cholesterol levels took statins. Of them, 93 wouldn't have had heart attacks anyway. Five people have heart attacks despite taking Pravachol. Only the remaining two out of the original 100 avoided a heart attack by taking the daily pills. In the end, 100 people needed to be treated to avoid two heart attacks during the study period—so, the number of people who must get the treatment for a single person to benefit is 50. This is known as the "number needed to treat."
Developed by epidemiologists in 1988, the NNT was heralded as a new and objective tool to help patients make informed decisions. It avoids the confusing distinction between "relative" and "absolute" reduction of risk. The NNT is intuitive: To a savvy, healthy person with high cholesterol that didn't decrease with diet and exercise, a doctor could say, "A statin might help you, or it might not. Out of every 50 people who take them, one avoids getting a heart attack. On the other hand, that means 49 out of 50 people don't get much benefit."
But drug companies don't want people thinking that way; whenever possible, they frame discussions of drugs in terms of relative risk reduction. That's why the package insert for Pravachol highlights the 31 percent reduction and mentions the NNT not at all.