The popular drug that helps you to stop smoking has been linked to an increased risk of serious cardiac problems and
strokes. Champix, the drug of choice of heavy smokers who find it difficult to give up with will power alone, has been shown to ‘significantly increase the risk of a serious cardiovascular event’. Currently, Champix is only available on prescription after a visit to your doctor, who will presumably do a thorough examination to check your overall health and well being before prescribing the drug. But the study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, tested data received from over 8,000 patients taking Champix and found that there was a 72% increased risk of those people taking Champix compared to those on a placebo.
Champix, or Chantix as it is known in the U.S., is the brand name for the drug varenicline. The drug helps to reduce the cravings for nicotine and especially with the withdrawals. It works by binding to nicotine receptors in the brain. Nicotine stimulates the production of dopamine, which is the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain. By attaching itself to the receptors normally used by nicotine, Champix fools the brain into thinking it’s had nicotine – so satisfying the craving for a cigarette. And the drug has a good success rate. After 12 weeks, 44 per cent of those taking Champix have given up smoking. However, since the drug’s launch in Britain in December 2006, the Government’s drug safety watchdog has received 1,513 reports of adverse reactions, including 62 reports of suicidal feelings, and in twelve different studies, researchers have shown that those who try to quit using the medication Champix were hospitalised with heart problems at two times the rate of people using other medications. And those who were brought in had no previous history of heart complaints. Dr. Sonal Singh of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Maryland says, “You’re talking about a drug which already is given to smokers that have high risk of heart disease. Now you’re talking about a substantial increased risk.”
However, not everyone agrees with the recent studies. Dr. Andrew Pipe, clinical director of the smoking cessation program at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, reacted to the assertion by saying he disagrees “most profoundly. “….. varenicline has consistently in study after study shown itself to be the most efficacious smoking cessation (drug) therapy available.” Pipe has advised a number of pharmaceutical companies on the subject of smoking cessation drugs, including Pfizer, the maker of Champix. He may have a point. Even though the percentage of 72% in cardiovascular side-effects seems to be dramatically high, the reality is the absolute difference is only 0.24 per cent. Pipe continues, “This is still such an incredibly low rate of side-effects, particularly in contrast to the known rate of side-effects and consequences of continued smoking.” And with the quitting success rate for smokers on Champix at six months typically around 22 to 25 per cent, should we be worried when there is such a low difference?
The general consensus is that the risk for serious cardiovascular adverse events is low and should be weighed up against the benefits of quitting of smoking.