Researchers say the drug, which goes by the generic name varenicline, treats alcoholism in much the same way as it does nicotine addiction. It stimulates an area of the brain that provides the pleasure derived from both drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco. No pleasure, no urge to drink.
"Drinking and smoking often co-occur, and given their genetic and neurochemical similarities, it is perhaps unsurprising that a smoking cessation treatment might serve to treat alcohol problems," said Dr. Raye Litten of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) . "Our study is the first multi-site clinical trial to test the effectiveness and safety of varenicline in a population of smokers and nonsmokers with alcohol dependence."
Ziller and colleagues conducted a clinical trial with 200 adults with drinking problems. They say they found the drug reduced the urge to drink.
NIH estimates about 18 million people in the U.S. have problems controlling their alcohol consumption. The researchers, writing in the Journal of Addiction Medicines, suggest Chantix should be considered as a tool to combat alcoholism.
Chantix, however, is known to have some side effects which can be severe. Problems reported with the drug have given some consumers pause.
Chantix already carries a “black box” warning on its label. But researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other institutions, say it might not be enough.
Writing about their study in the journal PloS One in 2011, they said the drug's poor safety profile makes it unsuitable for first-line use among those who want to quit smoking. According to the researchers, Chantix showed a substantially increased risk of reported depression or suicidal behavior compared to other smoking-cessation treatments.
Justice, of Charlotte, N.C., reports physical side effects from Chantix.
“I would much rather die a slow death from cigs than to die due to side effects of Chantix,” Justice wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “I have developed an agoraphobic reaction to all new and many older drugs that I may need for my health. I have an increased heart rate permanently now, too!”
Another patient, Keith, of Boise, Idaho, blames his legal problems on Chantix.
“After chewing for 26 years, I was recommended Chantix by my healthcare provider,” Keith writes. “I was taking Chantix for roughly three weeks when I experienced a blackout and severe memory loss. I woke in jail and was charged with two felonies. Here it is 180 days later, $20,000 plus in attorney fees and medical fees, and I still have no recollection of that night and events prior. Sadly because I didn't kill anyone, my case is not worth a suit against Pfizer according to the class action attorneys.”
Before Chantix can be prescribed for alcohol addiction, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must give its approval. It may well consider side effects before expanding the drug's use.
A 2008 study by the group Institute for Safe Medication Practices reviewed adverse event reports filed with the FDA. It found that Chantix generated 988 serious incidents in the fourth quarter of 2007, the most of any drug during that period.
“Some people have had changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, and suicidal thoughts or actions while using Chantix to help them quit smoking,” Pfizer, the maker of the drug, said in printed material about Chantix. “Some people had these symptoms when they began taking Chantix, and others developed them after several weeks of treatment, or after stopping Chantix.”
The pharmaceutical company also points out that when you try to quit smoking, with or without Chantix, you may have symptoms attributed to Chantix side effects that may actually be due to nicotine withdrawal.