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Suicide and Chantix: Was There A Connection?

Is there an association between suicide and Chantix? The FDA is in the process of taking away the black box warning about this potential risk. Is that safe?

Chantix helps many people stop smoking. That’s the good news. But there is a darker side to Chantix. There used to be a black box warning (the FDA’s strongest message to doctors about drug dangers) about suicide and Chantix. That now goes away because the FDA has determined the problem is not so great that it requires a special alert. The person who contacted us below has a sad story to share:

Q. My brother took Chantix for two months before he died from suicide. He had no previous mental health history, and was a mellow, wonderful, happy-go-lucky person. He was a very successful software engineer and loving husband and father with everything to live for. He loved life.

His vice was chewing tobacco, and he turned to Chantix to help quit. He had blackouts, hallucinations and fits of rage that he did not remember afterwards. He became intensely depressed and angry.

My sister-in-law took him to the ER; they sent him home after determining that he was “low risk.” They were very wrong: he killed himself four days later. The fact that he was on Chantix should have been a red flag, but no one seemed to take it seriously.

A. We are so sorry to learn about your tragic loss. For the last seven years there has been a prominent black box warning on the stop-smoking drug Chantix (varenicline). It stated:

“Serious neuropsychiatric events including, but not limited to, depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempt, and completed suicide have been reported in patients taking CHANTIX.”

The company that makes Chantix has long objected to this conspicuous warning. In the last several weeks the FDA has agreed to remove the black box. The agency notes that mental health side effects are still a risk. Health professionals should have taken note that your brother was on Chantix.

Suicide and Chantix: Other Stories from Readers

Phil in NC says:

“I also suspect that Chantix figured in the suicide of a brother in law.”

Susan T writes:

“Strongly suspect Chantix involvement in death of a friend by suicide. The black box warning should remain.”

David B. in Washington relates:

“I cannot even begin to express my thoughts about this corrupt decision by the FDA. I am irate on my own behalf, having suffered an ‘endless’ six months of hell from Chantix, and on behalf of others who will certainly suffer collateral damage when their smoker loses his/her sanity, then life, due to the medication!

“These are serious psychological side effects, in some cases fatal, to the smoker, his/her family, even neighbors, and I find that most physicians are not even aware! I thank God I kept my depression and suicidal thoughts (barely) under control for all that time, but believe me, it caused lasting damage to my loved ones as well!”

CC still reports complications:

“I’ve been off Chantix 2 yrs now and still suffer from short term memory loss. Taking the medication was awful because I have every single side effect possible. I isolated myself to the point that I slept in the guest room with the door locked and my husband slept in our room. I considered suicide all the time.”

J.E.T. shared this story:

“I learned so much about Chantix reading message boards that I thought it only fair to post for someone else’s benefit.

“I took Chantix twice to quit. Once in 2009 and again this year. I was successful in quitting both times but both experiences were completely different for me. The first time I took it, I followed the dosing instructions to the letter. On day 7, I upped the dose to the full blue pill twice a day and I actually quit on day 11. By day 15 or 16, I was in the hospital with a suicide attempt.

“I was perfectly happy when I started the Chantix. Despite all of the warnings about depression etc., I was really positive when I started it. I also lived alone at the time with my one child and I worked from home so I did not have a lot of human interaction. I think if I did, someone might have seen me becoming depressed and warned me about how I was acting. I didn’t notice it myself.

“It came on really quickly and I was oblivious to how I was feeling. I didn’t feel depressed like crying all the time; it was more like I became number and number until I didn’t feel anything at all. I had really vivid dreams the first time around but the Chantix did not make me nauseated. Within 24 hours of the suicide attempt, I was back home and looking back on it like it was an out of body experience.”

D.C. is a marine with a bad Chantix experience:

“I am a poster child for the ‘rare’ psychological side effects of Chantix. I am a U.S. Marine stationed in California. I quit taking Chantix 11 days ago and have been on it since last April.

“I quit smoking, which is nice, but I have completely changed. I am no longer me. Since I have quit, I have been having anxiety attacks at least twice a day, suicide ideation, and an overall feeling of being completely lost.

“I’ve had an MRI done on my brain yesterday and they found no problems. I have made two trips to the ER for some sort of panic attack where I just feel like the world is being taken away from me and I am going to die. I am supposed to get out of the Marines in about 3 months, but they think I’m going to be a medical hold. I have no past history of mental or psychological disorders.

“I am looking for anybody that has experienced this, I need to know if this is permanent. I can barely function now. A psychiatrist here has me on anti-anxiety meds. The doctors here don’t really think this is from the Chantix because they haven’t really had any experience with it yet. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.”

We wish we could tell D.C. what to expect. This is unchartered territory. Although many people seemingly take Chantix without experiencing serious psychological side effects, we have heard from a great many who do report anxiety, anger, panic, irritability, insomnia, nightmares, depression, suicidal thoughts, impatience and problems concentrating.

Most health professionals assume that the side effects of Chantix should disappear within a few days or weeks of discontinuing the drug. We have heard from many people that the complications from Chantix may last a lot longer for some individuals.

It is clear that the FDA now believes it can eliminate the suicide and Chantix black box warning. Hopefully, doctors will still warn patients that there are potentially serious psychological side effects associated with this drug.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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