Findings published this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that smokers taking the prescription smoking cessation aid Chantix (varenicline) are at a greater risk for heart problems than other smokers. The study was unique in that it found an increased risk in subjects without existing heart disease. The findings led researchers to conclude that the drug should be removed from the market.
However, the findings of the study, as valid as they may be, do not necessarily lead to that conclusion. As I told HealthDay,
You need a study that compares any increased risk of a cardiovascular event with Chantix to risk seen among those who continue smoking.
This is a common problem; researchers publish findings that have gone through peer-review and, while people like me get a kick out of poking holes in the studies, they still have a measure of validity. But the troubling trend is that the researchers then make public policy recommendations that, while based on the study, are merely opinions that were not part of the actual peer-reviewed findings.
Reporters need to do more to distinguish the study from the investigator’s opinion about what to do with the results of the study. In this case, the reporter, Denise Mann, deserves credit for doing just that.
In the Chantix article, which was published in a variety of outlets including USA Today.com, I explained that,
This study underscores the fact that helping people quit smoking is not a risk-free endeavor.
But, until the science can prove otherwise, most widely used smoking cessation aids, including Chantix, are still safer than continuing to smoke cigarettes.
We need to increase, not decrease, options available to smokers trying to quit. Overly cautious and burdensome regulations have the effect of keeping people hooked on a harmful habit they are trying to end. Unfortunately, there are far too many people against tools that can help smokers quit; for example, anti-tobacco activists against the use of snus, or smokeless tobacco, as a harm reduction approach, anti-drug activists against Chantix, and anti-… something activists against e-cigarettes.
If regulators are truly concerned with getting smokers to quit, the best approach they can take is to ensure that a variety of smoking cessation options, imperfect as they are, are available to meet quitters’ different needs.