DEC 26, 2017 12:21 PM PST

Drug Commonly Prescribed for Smoking Cessation May Be Dangerous for the Heart

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker

Stopping a smoking habit is vitally important for heart health, as smoking is a well-known risk factor for heart disease of all kinds. However, a new study from the American Thoracic Society points out that one of the market’s hottest smoking cessation drugs, varenicline AKA Chantix, might carry its own risks associated with dangerous cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke.

While studies have shown that varenicline greatly increases the odds of a person successfully kicking their smoking habit, a new study shows that the drug also increases the risk of an adverse cardiovascular event (ACE) like heart attack, stroke, arrhythmias, angina, peripheral vascular disease, and others as well as neuropsychiatric events such as depression, anxiety, psychosis, hallucinations, insomnia, and self-harm.

"Previous studies regarding the safety of varenicline have been conflicting and most examined people with relatively similar characteristics and backgrounds in highly controlled settings," explained lead study author Andrea S. Gershon, MD. "We wanted to study varenicline among all kinds of people in the real world.”

Researchers conducted an observational, self-controlled trial of patients prescribed varenicline, and analyzed the medical records of more than fifty thousand varenicline users between the year prior to drug use through the year following varenicline prescription.

On average, individuals from the study were 34 percent more likely to visit the emergency room or be hospitalized for an ACE while they were taking varenicline. But if researchers separated the participants who had never before experienced an ACE, their increased risk was only 12 percent. Overall, they concluded that 3.95 ACEs per one thousand varenicline users can be ascribed to using the drug. There was also a small increase in hospital visits for neuropsychiatric symptoms, but data on this is not yet statistically significant.

Varenicline is prescribed to be taken for 12 weeks, which is naturally the time during which its users were most at risk of an ACE.

Despite this study’s findings, it also has several limitations:

  • An observational study cannot dictate cause and effect

  • Researchers did not collect data on whether patients actually quit smoking as a result of taking varenicline

  • Researchers did not collect data on other smoking cessation drugs participants might have been taking at the time of the study

  • The potential influence of nicotine withdrawal on either ACEs or neuropsychiatric events is unknown

Gershon stressed that his study was not meant for people to question the importance of quitting a smoking habit.

"Quitting smoking greatly reduces a person's chances of developing heart disease and cancer and has many other health benefits," Gershon said. "Our findings should not be used to suggest people not take varenicline. The findings should be used to help people make an informed decision about whether they should take varenicline based on accurate information about its risks as well as its benefits."

The present study was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Sources: Everyday Health, American Thoracic Society

About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog: ScienceKara.com.
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