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Anti-smoking drug may curb drinking, too

March 3, 2009 |  2:26 pm

Smoke1A drug to help people quit smoking appears to reduce the desire for alcohol as well, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

The drug, varenicline, is approved as a smoking cessation aid and is sold under the brand name Chantix. Researchers at Yale decided to test the drug on a small group of people who were heavy smokers and heavy drinkers because there was some evidence that the drug may reduce drinking in a similar manner to how it works for smoking. Drinking and smoking are behaviors that often go hand-in-hand. Smokers are four times more likely than nonsmokers to meet the criteria for alcohol-use disorders. Diseases related to tobacco use are the leading cause of death in alcoholics.

The study was comprised of 20 adults who were daily smokers (smoking at least 10 cigarettes a day) and nonalcoholic heavy drinkers (consuming seven to 14 drinks per week and three or four drinks per episode at least once a week). The participants were given varenicline or a placebo for seven days. Then, in an experiment conducted in a laboratory, they were given one drink and then had the option of drinking more alcohol -- up to eight drinks -- in a two-hour period. The study found that varenicline reduced the desire to drink. Those people consumed one-half of one drink compared with the placebo group, which consumed an average of 2.6 drinks. Eighty percent of the participants receiving the drug did not take a drink at all compared with 30% of the placebo group. The drug reduced alcohol cravings and the feeling of being intoxicated.

Varenicline is thought to reduce the desire to smoke and drink by acting on receptors in the brain that stimulate the chemical dopamine. There were no adverse effects associated with taking varenicline and consuming alcohol.

The study was performed on heavy drinkers, and it's not known whether the drug would have any effect on people with alcohol dependence. But further studies should be conducted, said the lead author of the study, Sherry McKee, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. "A medication such as varenicline, which may target shared biological systems in alcohol and nicotine use, holds promise as a treatment for individuals with both disorders," McKee said in a news release.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Stephen Chernin / Getty Images

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