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Pfizer’s Champix Kills, it seems, but e-cigs don’t, notes Siegel

The smoking-cessation drug Champix, made by Pfizer-Canada, has been in implicated in a number of suicides, and instances of “suicide ideation” (thoughts of suicide), but is still approved by regulators in Canada and elsewhere. In 2012, an independent review of Champix was cancelled by the Health Ministry of British Columbia, and some people lost their jobs in the aftermath. The medication contains no nicotine but “works on the brain” to reduce cravings. The suicide link has not been established beyond doubt, either in court or in the lab. It seems that no one is willing to take the risk of carrying out the review.

The medication is still recommended by health advocacy groups to which Pfizer donates, and the Health Ministry of British Columbia still offers it to patients as part of its smoking-cessation programs.

The Vancouver Sun reported last weekend that the drug is “suspected of playing a major role in the deaths of 44 patients — 30 of them by suicide . . . linked to more than 1,300 incidents of suicide attempts or thoughts, depression, and aggression/anger....”

Boston-based harm-reduction advocate Michael Siegel hypothesizes a scenario, imagining what would happen if such claims were to be made about electronic cigarettes. Of course there would be deafening outcries demanding their removal from the market. But such outcries are not heard, or at least not heeded, about the Pfizer drug. “This reveals the hypocrisy and bias of these anti-smoking groups,” says Siegel. “They recommend that smokers use Champix, despite its having been linked with hundreds of sudden deaths, but they discourage smokers from using e-cigarettes, which have so far not been linked to any serious adverse health effects.”

The Champix-suicide link has not been proven, notes pharmaceuticals expert Barbara Mintzes at the University of British Columbia, since it has not been established that the suicides did not result from a pre-existing condition. But “you are looking at a lot of deaths, suicides and attempted suicides, and suicidal ideation in a population that you would have no reason to think would be otherwise at high risk of suicide,” said Professor Mintzes.

More than 200 Canadians have joined in a class-action suit against Pfizer, and health advocacy groups south of the border in the US have submitted a petition demanding stronger warnings. French health authorities have withdrawn their support of the drug.

This 2012 e-mail was later leaked: “We’ve decided to keep smoking cessation in-house, sorry about that,” wrote the then co-director of the BC Health Ministry's drug research division, in an e-mail to researchers at an independent drug research concern, declining their further services. “It’s getting political and we aren’t sure anyone wants to see a published evaluation.” (No one at Pfizer, anyway.) She was fired four months later. The e-mail was later leaked, and reported by the Sun in 2013.

Siegel notes that even anecdotal, unproven, allegations of such harm from e-cigarettes would raise a furor, and concludes that this knee-jerk reaction would result from the revulsion that smoking-ban activists feel upon seeing something that looks like smoking, and their preconceived and unfounded notion that e-cigs are evil. And from one other thing, suggests Siegel: the funding that health advocacy groups receive from pharmaceutical companies.

Indeed, opponents of vaping products routinely make the false statement that scientific evidence proves e-cigs to be dangerous, despite the complete lack of evidence that toxicants are present in anything higher than trace concentrations. Their “proof” is the unsupported fears of gateway effects and youth appeal, repeatedly stated without backup by other vaping opponents.

“Even by merely discouraging the use of e-cigarettes,” says Siegel, “anti-smoking groups are causing public health harm because they are opposing a bona fide strategy for smoking cessation that helps many smokers who would not be able to quit using traditional methods.”

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