Sept. 28, 2011 -- An inexpensive drug widely used in Central and Eastern Europe, but not approved in the United States, more than tripled smokers’ chances of successfully kicking the habit in a new study published in the latest New England Journal of Medicine.
The drug, Tabex (cytisine), has been used for smoking cessation in Russia and other Eastern European countries for more than four decades, but no rigorous studies have ever been done to prove its effectiveness.
Like the best-selling drug Chantix, marketed by Pfizer, it works by targeting a key nicotine receptor closely tied to tobacco cravings.
But the drug is much cheaper than Chantix and other smoking-cessation treatments, including nicotine replacement gums, patches, and inhalers, says researcher Robert West, PhD, of the University College London.
“In Russia, a (one-month) course of Tabex sells for about $6,” West tells WebMD. “This drug costs less than cigarettes, so it could potentially save a lot of lives in poorer countries where treatments to help people stop smoking have generally not been widely available.”
Cigarette smoking contributes to an estimated 5 million premature deaths each year across the globe. Of the more than 1 billion smokers on the planet, about two-thirds live in countries where the average income is less than $200 per week and where tobacco cessation treatments are far more costly than buying cigarettes, West says.
According to West, in China a two-month course of nicotine-replacement gum costs the equivalent of about $230 while 20 cigarettes can cost as little as 15 cents.
West says he became interested in studying Tabex after learning of the drug from Polish epidemiologist Witold Zatonski, MD, of the Cancer Center and Institute of Oncology in Warsaw.
“He had been going to conferences for several years telling anyone who would listen that this drug worked,” West says. “He showed me some data from his clinic that looked quite promising.”
The new study, which Zatonski co-authored, included 740 smokers randomly assigned to treatment with either Tabex or placebo for 25 days. Neither the smokers nor the researchers knew which therapy was being given.
A year later, 8.4% of the study participants taking Tabex had successfully given up cigarettes compared to 2.4% of the participants taking the placebo.
West says a major strength of the study was that it was publicly funded through a grant from the U.K.’s Medical Research Council.
Study participants got very little behavioral support because the researchers wanted to mimic the lack of supportive medical care in low-resource regions of the world where smoking rates are highest.
“For the most part, these people were on their own, so the findings tell us that this drug can work in countries without a lot of medical resources,” West tells WebMD.