Anti-Smoking Pill May Help Curb Drinking

A new use for Chantix?

The drug, called varenicline, already is sold to help smokers kick the habit. New but preliminary research suggests it could gain a second use in helping heavy drinkers quit, too.

Much further down the line, the tablets might be considered as a treatment for addictions to everything from gambling to painkillers, researchers said.

A study published Monday suggests not just nicotine but alcohol also acts on the same locations in the brain. That means a drug like varenicline, which makes smoking less rewarding, could do the same for drinking. Preliminary work, done in rats, suggests that is the case.

“The biggest thrill is that this drug, which has already proved safe for people trying to stop smoking, is now a potential drug to fight alcohol dependence,” said Selena Bartlett, a University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist who led the study. Details appear this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More often than not, smoking and drinking go together – an observation pub-goers have made for hundreds of years. That a single drug could work to curb both addictions isn’t a given – nor is it surprising, said Christopher de Fiebre, an associate professor of pharmacology and neuroscience at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

“This is an extremely important paper and hopefully it will convince the major funding agencies that they need to examine the interactions between nicotine and alcohol to a greater extent than they have done to date,” said de Fiebre, who was not connected with the study.

In fact, the University of California researchers, together with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, are now planning the first studies in humans of the drug’s effectiveness in curbing alcohol cravings and dependence, Bartlett said. That the drug is already Food and Drug Administration-approved should speed things along.

“This is a drug that people are actually using. That’s not trivial – not at all,” said Mark Egli, co-leader of the medications development program at the NIAAA, part of the National Institutes of Health. “There is plenty of animal research that looks pretty cool but there is no way those drugs are ever going to be used by human beings.”

[hat tip: Debbie]