Study Says Stop-Smoking Drug Carries Cardiovascular Risk

A drug prescribed for smoking cessation is linked to an increased risk of heart problems, according to a study published July 4 in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal). Varenicline, known by the brand name Chantix, was associated with a 72% increased risk of a serious cardiovascular “event.”

That sounds huge, but the scientific number-crunching shakes out a bit differently. Although attention must be paid, many critical minds are not ready to dump the drug. Fifty-two (1.06%) of the participants who took Chantix had serious cardiovascular events compared with 27 (0.82%) of those who took a placebo.

One bottom line for smokers who may want to rationalize continuing to puff: It’s always better to stop smoking. No excuses.

When varenicline was launched in 2006, the FDA noted that it could raise the risk of cardiac problems, and the federal agency recently updated the label for Chantix to reflect that risk among smokers with heart disease. And we wrote about the drug a couple of years ago. But the new study’s authors said, “These increased risks … are seen in smokers with or without heart disease.”

The irony, of course, is that one major risk of smoking is heart disease.

The Chantix-using subjects of this trial were able to abstain from smoking at a significantly higher rate, an achievement that should potentially confer a cardiovascular benefit. Many members of the medical community believe the drug should remained a valuable treatment option, given the devastating effects of smoking. Apart from heart issues, nicotine and the other ingredients of cigarette smoke, of course, compromise lung function and can lead to lung cancer, and also increase the risk of stroke and diabetes.

The results were based on a review of 14 studies of approximately 8,200 smokers or users of smokeless tobacco. Most had no history of heart disease. They were followed for as long as a year, a comparatively short term that gives many researchers pause. It’s possible, for example, that the risk diminishes over time.

Dr. Taylor Hays from the Mayo Clinic opined, “Although these results suggest a measure of caution should be taken in prescribing varenicline for tobacco dependence treatment … [T]he risk for cardiovascular events is low and is far outweighed by the benefits of diminishing the truly ‘heartbreaking’ effects of cigarette smoking.”

If you’re taking Chantix, don’t stop without consulting your doctor. If you’re unable to stop smoking via other methods, discuss the cost-benefit question of treatment with Chantix.

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