LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Varenicline, better known by its brand name Chantix, has been around for over a decade as a medication to help smokers kick the habit. However, researchers from UCLA say many heavy smokers deal with another health concern — heavy drinking. Now, a new clinical trial finds Chantix not only helps smokers quit for good, it also reduces the urge to drink alcohol as well.
Study authors tested two prescription drugs, Chantix and the alcoholism treatment naltrexone, on a group of 165 people. These particular individuals ranged in age from 21 to 65 years-old and smoked at least five cigarettes a day. The men averaged around 14 drinks per week while female participants consumed about seven alcoholic beverage a week.
Chantix appears to be doing double-duty
For 12 weeks, every participant received two milligrams of Chantix twice a day. Half the group also took a 50-milligram dose of naltrexone each day, while the other half took a placebo. Although each drug managed to help several patients to reduce their smoking and drinking, the team discovered taking Chantix alone produced similar results to using both medications at the same time.
“The overall smoking quit rate in the trial is impressive,” says lead author Lara Ray, a professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, in a university release.
After following up with the group 26 weeks later, 36 percent of the patients on Chantix had quit smoking. That rate is up from previous studies which show varenicline typically leads to a 25 to 30-percent success rate over the same span.
“We exceeded the overall expectation for this medication,” Ray adds. “This is especially important in a diverse group of people.”
The UCLA researcher notes over half of the volunteers in this trial were Black, a demographic which typically has below average success at quitting smoking in previous trials. Surprisingly, participants taking Chantix and a placebo had higher smoking quit rates (45%) than those receiving both medications (27%). Moreover, patients using naltrexone had only slightly better results in terms of reducing their drinking.
Participants taking both drugs cut their alcohol consumption from an average of seven beverages per drinking day down to three. However, people taking just varenicline and a placebo reduced their alcohol use from seven drinks to four.
“I am excited about both the smoking cessation rates and the drinking reductions,” Ray reports. “These findings suggests that desirable outcomes for smoking cessation and drinking reduction are achievable.”
Smoking and drinking often go hand-in-hand
Study authors note between 20 and 25 percent of smokers are also heavy drinkers. Both habits are major public health concerns, with studies showing that each can lower human lifespans and puts users at higher risk for diseases like COVID-19.
Addictions can be difficult to overcome and prescription drugs can help with that process. However, Ray notes medicine is only part of the cure and taking more than one at the same time can also have health side-effects.
“Varenicline alone is doing a great job, and this trial indicates that there is not much room for naltrexone to make a difference,” the member of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute explains. “But even medications like varenicline have their limitations. Medication is only part of the solution. There remains much research to be done on addictions and how to treat them.”
Researchers recommend that patients who ask their doctors for a prescription for Chantix try to quit both smoking and drinking simultaneously.
“There is evidence that varenicline can help them with both,” Ray concludes. “Varenicline appears quite effective at reducing drinking and helping people to quit smoking. Given that varenicline has been found to reduce drinking in trials for alcohol use disorder, it is possible that its effects on both drinking and smoking present an optimal alternative for this group of heavy-drinking smokers.”
The results of the clinical trial appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry.