Family’s anti-smoking drug sorrow
Suicide victim’s daughter blames the sad incident on Champix
An anti-smoking drug, available on South African shelves, is being put through rigorous clinical trials by its manufacturer after it emerged that some users had killed themselves or attempted suicide while using it.
For one South African family, though, the Champix trials have come too late.
One Sunday last October, Gavin Willard played a game of golf and then held a braai at his Barberton farm in Mpumalanga.
Before he went to bed, the SA Air Force pilot polished his shoes and checked that his uniform was in order, as he always did.
At about 3am the next morning, his wife was awoken by a gunshot.
Willard had shot himself, leaving nothing to explain why he had committed suicide.
But his daughter, Kerrie, is convinced the anti-smoking drug Champix – which Willard had been using in the weeks before his death – pushed him over the edge.
“My father was not a man who would take his own life,” Kerrie told City Press.
“He was a strong and meticulous individual who despised the idea of suicide. The side effects of Champix pushed him to do it.”
Champix has been hailed by many users as a very effective way to quit smoking – but its side effects and the reports of suicidal patients have pushed manufacturer Pfizer to issue a warning and order clinical trials.
Pfizer now warns users that some people have experienced “serious neuropsychiatric events” at the beginning of a course of Champix, and other people several weeks into treatment or after stopping.
The giant American pharmaceutical company also states that, in some cases, psychiatric symptoms have occurred in people with no previous history of mental problems.
The Willard family, says Kerrie, wants to know why Champix remains on the market if Pfizer is aware of its risks.
But Pfizer’s spokesperson, Leigh Gunkel-Keuler, said: “A causal link between suicide and Champix has not been established.”
She said, however: “There have been post-marketing reports received which reported changes in moods (in users), including depression and mania, psychosis, hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, homicidal ideation, hostility, agitation, anxiety and panic, as well as suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and completed suicides.”
In the wake of these reports, Gunkel-Keuler said Pfizer conducted clinical trials that found Champix did not cause these side effects.
She said: “Pfizer is (now) conducting a large double-blind placebo-controlled safety clinical trial of Champix to assess neuropsychiatric safety in patients with and without psychiatric disorders, and results are expected in 2017.”
There have been reports of suicides linked to Champix as far back as 2007, particularly in the US, UK, France and Australia. France banned the drug from its shelves in 2010.
The official verdict may still be out on Champix, but Willard’s grieving family is convinced the drug is to blame, and is considering legal action against Pfizer.
Willard had been taking the anti-smoking drug for less than two months before he committed suicide. It was prescribed to him by a military doctor.
Three weeks after Willard started taking Champix, the family said he fell ill with diarrhoea and vomiting. He stopped taking it for a week and then continued for another three weeks.
During the last three weeks, he was acting strangely, Kerrie said.
“He was agitated and often had no recollection of what he did during the day and night.
“He would wake up in the middle of the night and would chat about different things but would not recall any of it the following day,” she explained.
“This worried us because my father had no history of mental problems but, at that time, we had no idea what was happening.”
After his death, the family read the insert they found in Willard’s box of Champix.
“I was so flabbergasted when I read that some people had suicidal thoughts and even committed it while taking the medication,” Kerrie said.
Gunkel-Keuler admitted Pfizer had received complaints about Champix, and said this was why the safety information in the drug’s package insert
had been updated.