Anti-smoking drug linked to suicides given NHS approval

Mark Hughes
Thursday 28 February 2008 01:00 GMT
There have been two attempted suicides and 60 suicidal- type adverse reactions since the drug's introduction
There have been two attempted suicides and 60 suicidal- type adverse reactions since the drug's introduction (AP)

The anti-smoking drug Champix should be offered to smokers who want to kick the habit despite fears that it is linked to suicides, according to the Government's health watchdog.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) has recommended that the drug, which tests indicate can double the chances of a smoker quitting, be prescribed to those wanting to give up the habit.

The organisation made the recommendation as part of an advice package issued to smokers who want to quit. However, it qualified the decision by saying that it should not be taken by those under 18, or pregnant or breastfeeding women. The committee that recommended the drug said it was erring on the side of caution as the full side-effects of Champix were not yet known.

"This is a relatively new drug and we don't have the advantage of evidence as to its effects," said Sir Alexander Macara, the chairman of the National Heart Forum, who chaired the Nice committee. "We are being properly cautious about recommending it to people who might be vulnerable to the drug."

Christine Owens, from the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, also sat on the committee. She said it was aware of the possible link to suicide but added: "It is a clinical judgement and [this drug] should not be given to anyone where there are any concerns or people who have suicidal thoughts. However, there is an argument over whether people have suicidal thoughts because they have given up smoking or because of drugs."

The European Medicines Agency has ordered that the drugs come with a safety warning after Champix was linked to 37 suicides in America and those of two men in the UK. Omer Jama, 39, was found dead at his home in Bolton last October. He slashed his wrists weeks after starting a course of Champix. And Wayne Marshall, 36, a father-of-two, was found hanged in January, shortly after completing a 13-week course of the drug. His widow said she believed the drug had played a part in his death and reported the case to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

As well as these cases there have been two other attempted suicides and 60 suicidal-type adverse reactions since the drug's introduction. The MHRA, which licenses and monitors drugs in this country, says it will be closely monitoring the use of Champix.

The drug, which costs £163.80 for a full 12-week course, was launched in Britain in December 2006 and was hailed as one of the best ways to stop smoking after trials showed that it could increase the chance of quitting after one year from 10 to 20 per cent. It provides relief from cravings and withdrawal symptoms by stimulating the same brain cell receptors as nicotine, making smoking feel less satisfying. About 200,000 patients have been prescribed the drug in the UK since its launch and it was approved by the NHS last July.

A spokesman for Pfizer, the drug's manufacturer, welcomed Nice's decision and said that although symptoms of depression had been reported in some patients taking Champix, no causal link had so far been established.

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