How Quitting Smoking Can Kill You

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How Quitting Smoking Can Kill You

By Remi L. Roy 03/10/15

Popular stop-smoking aids have been responsible for hundreds of suicides and the subject of unprecedented lawsuits.

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I awoke at midnight in a posh cabin on the shores of an idyllic lake from a terrifying nightmare. A demon was attacking my dreams, trying to devour the little left of my bankrupted spirit. I was bunked in the back of the cabin with my older cousin, who had earlier picked me up from detox. I sat up, rattled, to be sure what I heard was indeed happening. An associate pastor and zealous Christian, my cousin was upright, eyes open, condemning and casting out the demon from my mind in the name of Christ. I was scared and hid under covers like a child.

Chantix was connected to 544 suicides and almost 2000 attempted suicides over the last five years in the U.S. 

Over the hours that followed I met my maker. Though I didn’t see anything, only felt it, I am sure there was a presence other than mine under the stars on that empty beach. The God that greeted me in my desperation was not a man or woman, but like the wind and water, the stars and moon. And my soul was imprinted with a direct message as my moment of truth closed: "Give the enemy no foothold in your life; wake and burn everything… I will set you free." When I woke, I burnt my gear on the fire and haven’t used drugs, drank or smoked since. I asked my cousin about that night but he couldn’t remember anything. He thinks what I saw was a vision—I know it was a miracle.

To be clear, I am not a Christian, nor am I religious. I am a humanist, a realist. I still have a hard time believing in the supernatural, despite my encounter with it. But I do believe in the spiritual, a God of my understanding, and I now see the importance of what step programs call a spiritual experience. I also believe that a Road to Damascus moment can be the catalyst to a new life, free from any and all of the hang-ups that once enslaved its hostage. Overeating, co-dependence, drugs, booze, to name a few strongholds are all symptoms of profound emotional and spiritual problems that can be solved by untangling the knots of the past, doing battle with the present and letting God work a miracle.

The same solution applies to quitting smoking. Yet, more than ever, people are trying to clip that ugly addiction by man-made cures like Champix and Zyban. The side effects have proven detrimental, sometimes deadly. 

In Canada, 625,000 prescriptions were filled for Champix in 2013. A recent Vancouver Sun investigation found that the popular stop-smoking aid was suspected of playing a role in the deaths of 44 people, 33 by suicide, since 2007. The drug was linked to 1,300 cases of depression, aggression and attempted suicides. While the alarming numbers are pulled from a Health Canada database where negative side effects of government-approved drugs are listed, the Sun reported that experts believe the figures could represent as low as 1% of people who have been inflicted by Champix.  

Pfizer, maker of the drug, is the subject of a class-action lawsuit involving 200 people alleging Champix increases the risk of suicide, depression and neuropsychiatric injury. The lead plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Nicole McIvor, who smashed her car into an oncoming logging truck after taking Champix, and Patricia Clow, who filed on behalf of her late daughter Heidi, a previously healthy and happy 22-year old who slid into a dark downward spiral and committed suicide after using the drug. Alicia Pickering, the third principal plaintiff, was forced to take a leave of absence and subsequently hospitalized for depression.

“I am outraged that this drug remains on the market,” said Pickering. “If it [the lawsuit] saves even one soul from suffering the way I have, it’ll be worth it.”

Klein Lyons, the law firm that filed the suit, would not comment on the case but in a statement to The Fix, Pfizer spokesperson Christina Antoniou provided the following retort: “There is no reliable scientific evidence demonstrating that Champix causes the injuries alleged. The company stands behind Champix and Pfizer Canada provided appropriate and accurate information to regulators, physicians and patients about the safety and efficacy of Champix, which Health Canada approved, in accordance with Health Canada’s labeling requirements.”

The Canadian lawsuit is not the first time Pfizer has been sued over side effects associated with its smoking cessation aids. In the U.S. two years ago, Pfizer was forced to pay out south of $300 million to some 2,700 people who claimed Chantix (sold as Champix in Canada and Chantix in the U.S.) triggered suicidal thoughts and grave psychological side effects. Singly, Birmingham, Ala., firm Cory Watson Crowder & DeGaris represented 254 plaintiffs from 28 states in the case. The five-year litigation produced over 22 million pages of documents and dozens of depositions.

If the stark American statistics—much higher than the numbers exhumed by the Sun—are counted, the plaintiffs in the cases outlined herein have a sound cause for litigation. According to documents obtained by America Tonight under the Freedom of Information Act, Chantix was connected to 544 suicides and almost 2000 attempted suicides over the last five years in the U.S. Despite those troubling numbers, Pfizer made $670 million from sales of Chantix in 2013. Profits continue to climb. 

For its part, the Food and Drug Administration has required Pfizer to carry a black box warning on its drug since 2009, highlighting that Chantix poses a series of mental-health risks, including depression, hostility and suicidal thoughts. In a media release outlining the reasons for the administration’s decision, Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research said, “The risk of serious adverse events while taking these products must be weighed against the significant health benefits of quitting smoking.” A year later, Health Canada followed suit and adopted the position that Champix was, in fact, linked to grave neuropsychiatric symptoms like self-harm, aggression and agitation in numerous users. 

The FDA also moved to require Pfizer to undertake a meta-analysis to evaluate the cardiovascular risks posed by its popular drug. Findings of that study included that Chantix was responsible for “a higher occurrence of major adverse cardiovascular events.” Nonfatal heart attacks, nonfatal strokes and death were observed in higher numbers than test subjects who used Chantix, compared to the study’s placebo group. 

Pfizer’s slick Chantix marketing campaign sees viewers of its commercials introduced to real people who have quit smoking using the controversial drug. The stories are short but stacked with hope that one can undoubtedly kick cigarettes with the popular prescription pill. Only, in addition to a family-friendly script replete with Colgate smiles and children at play, half the runtime of the commercial, as is the case in the story of Jenny, is devoted to listing the many, many side effects of the drug. 

“Some people had changes in behavior, thinking or mood, hostility, agitation, depressed mood and suicidal thoughts or actions while taking or after stopping Chantix,” the narrator notes with the speed of an auctioneer, continuing: “Tell your doctor of any history of mental health problems, which could get worse while taking Chantix…Get medical help right away if you have symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. Use caution when driving or operating machinery. Common side effects include nausea, trouble sleeping and unusual dreams.”

Still, even as Chantix is labeled with the toughest safety warnings possible, in October American consumer groups petitioned the FDA to further increase warnings of the side effects based on the latest findings of studies conducted on the drug. Those analyses found that Chantix increased the risk of psychosis, violence and suicidal ideation, which, according to the petition—filed jointly by Consumer Reports, Public Citizen, the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, the National Center for Health Research and the National Physicians Alliance and Public Citizen—should be more clearly marked on the product labeling. 

“The adverse effects can be catastrophic, resulting in death, disability, and disruption of marriage, family relationships, and jobs,” the petition reads. “Severe symptoms can begin with the first doses even before stopping smoking, and many resolve soon after treatment is stopped…The adverse effects of Chantix have been documented in three special studies by the FDA… Psychiatric adverse effects of Chantix have also been observed worldwide and publicly reported in Canada, France, New Zealand, and Australia.” In fact, France made the decision to stop covering the drug through its public system. 

Of course, other smoking cessation drugs have been tied to troubling statistics. Zyban, manufactured by British-based pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline PLC., has been the subject of similar studies, negative publicity and slapped with the same warning labels as Chantix. In the first year it was approved, it was suspected of playing a role in the deaths of 35 people in the UK. In 2013, the drug was linked to 100 overdoses in British Columbia alone, including almost 50 suicide attempts. Figures revealed by the Sun showed that since Zyban was approved in Canada in the late '90s, it was the suspected culprit in 27 deaths. 

Admittedly, the paradox of investigating a rash of deaths triggered by stop-smoking aids in light of the fact 5.5 million people die every year from cigarettes is palpable. It’s been said cigarettes are harder to kick than heroin. I get that. It’s hard to quit. Nicotine is a powerful stimulant that impacts the same reward center in the mind as cocaine and amphetamines, increasing dopamine levels and, in turn, improving alertness, decreasing anxiety and dulling pain. Not to mention, it’s often the last domino to fall in the life of an addict, sometimes the first in a relapse. But, as step programs have shown for decades, ridding one’s life of the strongholds of the past is as simple (to borrow a line from AA) as letting go and letting God. Miracles do happen. I’m living proof of that. 

Man-made solutions to serious emotional and spiritual extensions like drinking, using, or smoking are inherently limited. When I think back on my life as an addict, I’m convinced no person could have unshackled the chains of addiction that ensnared me for the better part of two decades. Only God—in submission to a will more righteous and compassionate than the code of debauchery and selfishness I operated by—could have saved me from the drugs, yes, but also the lesser evils like nicotine. Had I known the freedom that would come from burning everything up and walking away from the past, I would have met my demons on Skid Row years ago, with a gas can in one hand and a match in the other. 

Remi L. Roy, founder of Martyr Magazine, last wrote about holding doctors responsible for prescription drug deaths and the global epidemic of synthetic drugs.

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