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Stop-Smoking Drug Chantix Has Risks

Chantix can help smokers quit, but they must beware of the serious psychological and physical side effects.

Smoking remains one of the biggest health hazards in the world today. Even after decades of dire warnings, more than 40 million Americans still smoke. That’s nearly one in five. Smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers. Every year almost half a million deaths are attributed to the consequences of tobacco. These include deaths from cancer, heart disease and lung disease such as COPD.

Anything that can help people stop smoking would seem like a terrific public health benefit. That’s why there has been so much enthusiasm for drugs like varenicline (Chantix). The FDA approved this medication in 2006 to help smokers quit.

In long-term clinical trials (up to one year), approximately 22 percent of those using Chantix were able to give up cigarettes. That compares to 15 percent of those using an older stop-smoking drug, bupropion SR (Zyban), and to almost 10 percent of those on placebo.

Chantix Side Effects

Such numbers are better than nothing, but clearly Chantix is not a magic wand. It also carries some serious baggage. The FDA warns that the drug is linked to depression, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, agitation, hostility and other changes in behavior. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices has reviewed adverse drug events reported to the FDA and found that serious problems such as suicidal or homicidal preoccupations are far more common with Chantix than any other drugs.

Visitors to our website have reported their experience with these scary side effects. One woman wrote:

“I have been taking Chantix for months now. It works, but I have a history of depression. Since about the third month of taking this medicine, I noticed that I would rather stay home than go out even to the grocery store. I had to force myself to go on family outings.

“I believe that Chantix has me angry at everyone around me. I have suicidal thoughts all the time. Last night I wanted to cut my wrists and put all my family members out of my misery.

“I see my doctor in a few days. In the meantime, my loved ones are making sure I do not take too many pills or hurt myself. I pray for the strength to get though another day.”

Another person reported:

“I started taking Chantix and within a few days of starting the full dose the really nasty side effects started. I am angry and can’t sleep. I’m having panic attacks and depression. Checking out has crossed my mind a few times.

“The worst of all is the shortness of breath. I used to run my dogs two or three miles a day in addition to my workouts several days a week. Now I’m lucky if I can walk two blocks without getting out of breath.”

Violence against others is another possible complication associated with Chantix. One web visitor shared this story:

“I live in the UK. On Christmas Eve my boyfriend had been using Chantix for some months. He was drinking and went berserk for no reason, assaulted me and destroyed my apartment… As far as I know, he has no past mental health problems or history of violence.”

Chantix has helped many people quit smoking, but the risks are significant and must be recognized. Other side effects can include insomnia, abnormal dreams, digestive distress and headaches.

Stopping smoking requires commitment and support. A drug like Chantix may be helpful for some, but it should be used with caution and full awareness of the potential hazards.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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