Anti-smoking drug Chantix may help other addicts, but at what cost?

Two new clinical studies have found evidence that Pfizers’s anti-smoking drug Chantix (varenicline) may help take the enjoyment out of cocaine and alcohol in much the same way it makes smoking cigarettes feel less desirable, thereby easing addiction and making it easier for users to quit. The news will certainly be welcomed by manufacturer Pfizer, which had counted on Chantix being a major moneymaker before sales of the drug dropped off following reports linking it to cases of suicide and hostile behavior. But numerous other studies and clinical data suggest Chantix is far from being a sound panacea for addictions, be they to tobacco, alcohol, or cocaine. 

The first new study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and published earlier this month in the Journal Alcohol and Drug Dependence, monitored 37 people addicted to cocaine. Urine tests issued periodically throughout the week showed that participants taking Chantix were half as likely to use cocaine as participants taking a placebo. The Chantix group also consumed less alcohol than the placebo group and valued cocaine less than various amounts of money when both were offered in controlled tests. Researchers determined that Chantix may have made cocaine less appealing and rewarding.

The second study, which analyzed the usage patterns of 15 moderate to heavy social drinkers, found that the participants taking Chantix experienced a diminished desire to drink and a relative distaste for alcohol. Those results, according to Time magazine, corroborate the casual reports of Chantix users who claim they find alcohol less desirable while taking the anti-smoking drug. The results of that study will be published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Hugh Myrick, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina who co-authored the drinking study told Time that “A single medication that could decrease the use of both substances would be ideal,” pointing out that some people are addicted to both alcohol and cocaine.

However, other clinical trials and consumer complaints provide evidence that patients who turn to Chantix to quell their addictions could be trading one set of dangers for another. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that Chantix labels include its strongest warnings, and the drug has topped the regulatory agency’s list of the most dangerous prescription drugs for its link to suicidal thoughts and behavior, aggression, violent mood swings, confusion, nightmares, and other serious psychiatric conditions. More recent research indicates that Chantix may cause heart problems in some patients with pre-existing cardiovascular disease.

And, while some doctors believe Chantix to be less dangerous than the addictions it’s supposed to ease, others urge smokers to try other, safer methods of quitting first.