An anti-smoking drug has become the focus of forensic scientists in Victoria, as concerns emerge regarding its potential link to suicide.
The decision to look into the drug, commercially known as Champix, came directly from Victorian coroner Jacqui Hawkins following the death of a Melbourne man last year, who took his own life after taking the drug for six weeks.
The 36-year-old’s mother brought the matter to the Victorian Coroner’s Court’s attention, after writing a letter and blaming Champix for her son’s death.
Following up the claim, last month Ms Hawkins found evidence that the man’s death could have been the result of an adverse reaction to Varenicline, a chemical prescribed for the cessation of smoking, helping to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
But head of the institute’s forensic sciences and chief toxicologist Dr Dimitri Gerostamoulos says it can be very difficult to establish the link, particularly if people have a past history of suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
“Champix has been on the market for probably nine years now and there is some association in people who have a pre-existing mental condition, that they may be predisposed to thoughts of suicidal ideation,” he said.
“There’s been quite a lot of research that’s been done, not only here but overseas, and there’s been no real consensus reached on the question of whether or not this particular drug can cause suicide, or lead to suicide in patients.”
Though a concrete link has yet to be established, enough evidence has been collated to introduce routine and regular testing of the drug in people who make a report to the coroner.
According to a report by the ABC, since being listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in 2008, Australian doctors have prescribed the anti-smoking drug millions of times.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) says there have been 1,958 adverse event reports regarding Champix since mid 2015, 32 of which had links to suicide.
However, the TGA says the cases could also be attributed to the onset of depression due to sudden nicotine withdrawal.
“So there’s still a fair bit of work that needs to be done. It’s often not just one particular treatment or factor that leads to the death, these cases are usually multi-factorial,” says Dr Gerostamoulos.
He expects the forensic team will provide collected data to the coroner in the next 12 to 18 months.
At this stage he advises that any patients who have a mental issue and are looking to quit smoking should discuss these issues with their doctor, while those already taking Champix should go back to their doctor to discuss any possible risks.
There are no plans at this stage to recall the drug.