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New Drug Ups Odds to Quit Smoking

Varenicline Helps More Than 4 in 10 People Stop Lighting Up
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Nov. 15, 2005 (Dallas) -- An experimental smoking-cessation drug increases the odds that smokers can kick the habit compared with a widely used drug now on the market, researchers say.

In new studies, 44% of smokers taking varenicline were able to stop lighting up. In contrast, just 30% of those taking the already-approved Zyban and 18% of those who took a placebo were able to quit.

And by a year later, 23% of people taking varenicline were still off the cigarettes vs. 15% on Zyban.

"Varenicline is not just another tool, but a better tool, to quit smoking," says researcher Serena Tonstad, MD, PhD. Tonstad is a professor of nutrition at the University of Oslo and an attending physician in the department of preventive cardiology at Ulleval University Hospital in Oslo, Norway.

The new drug packs a one-two punch against the deadly addiction, she tells WebMD.

First, it attaches to nicotine receptors in the brain. "This prevents the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes people feel rewarded, and as a result they don't want more nicotine," Tonstad says.

But it also activates the nicotine receptors, "so you don't get as many cravings or withdrawal symptoms," she says.

Never Too Late to Quit

The two new studies, presented here at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association, included about 2,000 smokers who were randomly assigned to receive varenicline, Zyban, or a placebo. None of the participants knew which pill they were taking.

In a third study of 1,206 smokers who knew they were taking varenicline, 44% were still smoke-free a year later, compared with 37% of those who received a placebo.

Knowing they were getting a smoke aid may have helped more people fight the urge to pick up, Tonstad says.

Timothy Gardner, MD, a heart surgeon at Christiana Care Health Services in Wilmington, Del., says new ways to fight the addiction are sorely needed. On average, men who smoke die 13.2 years earlier than men who do not smoke, and women who smoke die 14.5 years earlier than women who do not smoke, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's Health Consequences of Smoking report from 2004.

"It's never too late," he tells WebMD. According to the World Health Organization, a smoker's risk of developing heart disease drops by 50% within one year of quitting. Within 15 years, the risk of dying from heart disease approaches that of someone who never lit up.

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