August 1, 2006 – This day, pharmaceutical company Pfizer began selling the stop-smoking drug varenicline (brand name Chantix) in the USA. Two months later it also became available in Europe (as Champix).
The new drug could help people to stop smoking because it both reduced the crave for nicotine, and reduced the actual effect of nicotine while smoking. Testing showed it to be more effective than drugs that had been used previously to help people quit smoking (such as the antidepressant bupropion, better known as Wellbutrin).
According to a reliable Dutch-language source, research showed that after three months of using Chantix 4 out of 10 smokers had stopped; after one year 2 out of 10 still did not smoke. So for people trying to quit smoking by using Chantix, in the long run 1 out of 5 appeared to be successful.
Serious Mental Side Effects
In 2008, the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) noticed that this drug could cause “serious neuropsychiatric symptoms” in the form of depression, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal actions. In July 2009, the FDA required Pfizer to print a “Black Box” on Chantix packages to clearly warn for this side effect.
Chantix is still being promoted actively for people who want to stop smoking, but the Pfizer website for health care professionals now includes a clear warning of the risks. They even mention that some Chantix users were reported to have “completed suicide”:
“All patients being treated with CHANTIX should be observed for neuropsychiatric symptoms including changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, and suicide-related events, including ideation, behavior, and attempted suicide. These symptoms, as well as worsening of pre-existing psychiatric illness and completed suicide have been reported in some patients attempting to quit smoking while taking CHANTIX in the post-marketing experience.
[...] Advise patients and caregivers that the patient should stop taking CHANTIX and contact a healthcare provider immediately if agitation, hostility, depressed mood, or changes in behavior or thinking that are not typical for the patient are observed, or if the patient develops suicidal ideation or suicidal behavior.”
The official Pfizer webpage for consumers offers similar warnings, though perhaps a little less prominently displayed:
[...] “Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking CHANTIX, as these symptoms may worsen while taking CHANTIX.”
To be honest, I’m reminded of an old German saying here: “den Teufel mit Beelzebub austreiben”, expelling the devil by Beelzebub. This applies when you try to combat one evil with an equally bad evil.
Devil and Death, detail from “Allegory of Law and Grace”,
after a 1530 woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Unlike most histories presented here, this one is clearly not finished yet.