Old anti-smoking drug passes new test

Cytisine, an extract from the seeds of the Golden Rain acacia that was first marketed in Bulgaria in 1964, can give smokers an inexpensive assist in kicking the habit, according to the first large modern study of the drug.

In the test on 740 volunteers, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 8.4 percent of those who were given cytisine for 25 days stayed off cigarettes for one year, compared with 2.4 percent in the placebo group.

Anti-smoking drug Chantix

Anti-smoking drug Chantix

That success rate is comparable to treatment with nicotine patches and other anti-smoking drugs like varenicline (Chantix) and bupropion (Zyban), chief author Robert West of the University College London told Reuters Health.

Chantix is sold by Pfizer Inc and Zyban is a GlaxoSmithKline product.

It also costs much less — a month of cytisine pills, sold in Central and Eastern Europe under the brand name Tabex, costs about $15 in Poland and $6 in Russia. Nicotine patches and pills to stop smoking typically sell for more than $100 per treatment, depending on the country.

“This is off-patent. In theory, anyone can grow this stuff. The pills can be made for practically nothing,” West said.

The drug is not approved in the United States, Japan or Western Europe.

Smoking kills an estimated five million people worldwide each year, and 95 percent of people who try to quit smoking without help fail to stay off tobacco for six months or longer. Most can’t afford some of the drugs found to be effective in improving the quit rate.

Although some previous studies have suggested that cytisine can help smokers quit, they have not been definitive.

“Cytisine has been lurking in the background in tobacco control for quite a while,” said Thomas Glynn, director of international cancer control for the American Cancer Society, who was not connected with the new research.

“There has never been a large well-conducted study done before. This isn’t definitive, but it’s a breakout study for cytisine.”

Because the price is so much lower than other treatments “this will be huge in low-income countries where the tobacco companies are focusing a lot of their effort now,” he told Reuters Health in a phone interview. “With replication, this can make a real difference in public health.”

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