WEDNESDAY, Feb. 15 (HealthDay News) — The quit-smoking drug Chantix may also help problem drinkers cut their alcohol consumption, a small new study suggests.
Exactly how this drug curbs drinking is not fully understood, but its use may increase blood pressure, heart rate and feelings of sadness and nausea, thereby blunting the pleasurable effects of alcohol, the researchers said.
“Chantix might reduce alcohol consumption by reducing overall enjoyment of the alcohol drinking experience,” said study author Emma Childs, a research associate at the University of Chicago.
“Chantix increased the unpleasant effects of alcohol, for example feeling drowsy and irritable, [and] participants also reported that they didn’t like the alcohol effects as much,” Childs said.
Approved to help smokers quit in 2006, Chantix (varenicline) has its share of potential side effects. In July 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated that Chantix carry a “black box” warning about the potential risks of depression and suicidal thoughts. Recently, the drug was linked to a small but significant risk of heart attack and stroke among people with pre-existing heart disease. Chantix costs roughly $3 per pill.
The results of the new study were released online in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research prior to publication in the May print issue.
The study included 15 healthy participants who took part in six sessions. They received a 2-mg dose of Chantix and an inactive placebo, followed three hours later by a beverage containing either a placebo, a low dose of alcohol, or a high dose of alcohol.
Before and after the sessions, the researchers asked the participants about their mood, tested visual ability and measured physiological responses such as blood pressure and heart rate.
The participants found the Chantix-booze combination increased the unpleasant effects of alcohol and reduced the rewarding aspects of drinking.
Whether the drug might someday be approved to help problem drinkers cut back remains to be seen, said the researchers, who acknowledged that the study’s small size is a limitation.
“We are not currently performing any studies with Chantix, although other groups are actively pursuing this line of research with a view to developing Chantix as an aid to people wanting to quit or cut down their drinking,” Childs said.
Dr. Ihsan Salloum, professor of psychiatry and director of the alcohol and drug abuse treatment program at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, termed the study encouraging.
Noting that new ways of treating alcoholism are much needed, Salloum said that Chantix may have a niche among smokers with alcohol-dependence issues. “We need a lot more options in terms of medicines to help curb drinking,” he said. “We have many options for depression and need more for alcoholism, considering it is one of the most common diseases around the world.”
More research is needed, he noted, but “this medication may be helpful for people with a drinking problem who are also smokers.”
The study was funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Learn more about alcoholism and how it is treated at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
SOURCES: Ihsan Salloum, M.D., M.P.H., professor, psychiatry, and director, alcohol and drug abuse treatment program, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; Emma Childs, Ph.D., research associate, University of Chicago; Feb. 16, 2012, Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, online
Last Updated: Feb. 15, 2012
Starting with the headline, any suggestion that this drug has been shown to “curb problem drinking” is not supported by this study. This story does not make clear to readers what information comes from the research that is the main subject and what comes from unrelated research or anecdotes. It doesn’t put the research into the effects of Chantix on people who drink into context with existing drug treatments given to some people with alcohol problems. The story does provide cost and side effect information.
Overall, this is making news out of a small study of the short-term (only hours) effects of a drug on the way alcohol affects human physiology. One could question the newsworthiness of this story about such a small, short-term study.
News stories should make clear what’s news and what’s background. This story confuses things by trying to transform research into how people feel when they mix Chantix and alcohol into an advance in knowledge about how to reduce alcohol consumption, which this research did not test.
Many alcoholics smoke. A magic bullet that helps both addictions would indeed be big news. While Chantix is probably effective in improving quit-rates among smokers, it has not been shown to affect drinking. This small, short-term study in humans is only a first step in exploring how Chantix might affect drinkers.
The story reports that Chantix costs about $3 per pill.
The lead of the story misstates the results of the study. These researchers measured how a few participants felt after taking Chantix or a placebo and drinking alcohol or a placebo drink. They found that overall the participants did not feel as good after drinking a low dose of alcohol, if they had taken a Chantix pill earlier. However, they didn’t see the same difference with higher doses of alcohol. This test did not look at whether these people voluntarily would change the amount of alcohol they drank when they took Chantix. The story headline and lead both focus on the possibility that Chantix could curb problem drinking. Although some other reports indicate people taking Chantix might drink less that is not what this test looked at.
The story does report that Chantix carries a “black box” warning and that there are concerns about depression, suicidal thoughts, and the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
The story does note that this test included only 15 people. But it doesn’t remind readers of the limitations in trying to draw conclusions from such a limited sample size.
It also points out the researchers are not studying whether Chantix can help problem drinkers. But even though the story’s headline and lead refer to “problem drinkers,” readers are not told that although the participants were considered heavy social drinkers and did smoke some, they were not considered either problem drinkers nor addicted to cigarettes.
The story also confuses readers by interchanging endpoints, sometimes referring to reducing alcohol consumption, sometimes talking about how people respond to alcohol.
The researchers wrote that this test helps define how people respond to alcohol after taking Chantix. The test did not look at whether Chantix helps people drink less. The story switches back and forth between background from other studies and reports about Chantix and alcohol consumption and the results of this specific test of the specific types of negative feelings produced by combining Chantix and alcohol.
The story notes that it “remains to be seen” whether Chantix might ever be recommended to help problem drinkers. However, the overall tone is that the drug could be useful, a message which may encourage people to try using the drug even though this test does not provide evidence that it works to curb alcohol consumption.
More important is this point: The source research study excluded alcoholics. Because the news article refers to the effect of Chantix on “problem drinkers” without defining what that means, and includes speculation that there might be a “niche” for this drug for those with “alcohol-dependence issues,” the reader would be expected to think this article might apply to alcoholics.
The story does include an independent source. There was no disclosure statement included with the preview copy of the research article, so it is not known whether any of the researchers have ties to Pfizer (the maker of Chantix) or other pharmaceutical companies in this area.
There is no reference to alternatives other than comments from one source that “that new ways of treating alcoholism are much needed.” It could have told readers about naltrexone, acamprosate, or disulfiram, which are already approved by the FDA for the treatment of alcohol dependence (alcoholism). There is no mention of the role of behavioral and psychiatric treatments as alternative or adjunctive care for alcoholics.
It is clear that Chantix is currently available to help smokers quit.
As mentioned above, other drugs are already used to treat alcohol addiction. Readers of this story should have been given that background.
The story does not appear to rely on a news release.