Surprising results of a UCLA clinical trial show that people who smoke daily and drink heavily can reduce their alcohol consumption and stop smoking.

The trial, which took place at the UCLA outpatient research facility between July 2015 and December 2019, looked at two prescription medications and their effects on drinking and smoking:

  • Varenicline (for smoking)
  • Naltrexone (for alcoholism)

Involving 165 participants, ranging from 21 to 65 years of age and who smoked five or more cigarettes a day, researchers found varenicline (brand name Chantix) could be useful in limiting one’s consumption of alcohol.

For the study, the participants were asked to stop smoking and reduce their alcohol consumption. During those 12 weeks, every person was given two milligrams of varenicline two times a day. In addition, 83 people got a daily 50 milligrams of naltrexone, with the rest receiving a placebo.

At a follow-up 26 weeks after the study concluded, researchers learned 59 participants (36%) quit smoking altogether.

This can represent a future addition to existing therapy methods.

Trial’s smoking quit rate was outstanding

UCLA Shirley M. Hatos Chair of Clinical Neuropharmacology professor of psychology and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences Lara Ray said the trial’s smoking quit rate was outstanding. According to Ray, other varenicline-related studies show a 25% to 30% success rate after six months.

She said the medication exceeded the researchers’ expectations, especially in such a diverse group of individuals. According to Ray, other studies that involved Black participants had a lower-than-average smoking termination rate. However, the current trial involved more Blacks than other races and did not follow the same rate.

Researchers were surprised to learn that varenicline and placebo participants had a higher smoking cessation rate than those who received both actual drugs.

Ray said the news is encouraging, as it is the first significant varenicline study that focused mainly on heavy-drinking smokers.

Lowers the Drinking Rate and Eliminates Smoking altogether

Even though there was a lower smoking cessation rate among the group that received both drugs, they still did better than the placebo group in reducing their alcohol consumption. When the study started, participants were drinking an average of seven drinks a day. The group given the drug combo lowered their consumption to three drinks a day over the 12-week period. The drug-placebo group lowered their consumption to four drinks a day.

Ray said both are notable decreases. She said the findings indicate that it’s possible to attain an outcome that lowers the drinking rate and eliminates smoking altogether.

About 25% of the smokers also identified as heavy drinkers. There were no notable differences in the study’s decrease and quit rates between men and women.

Heavy drinking and smoking remain a substantial public health crisis

Heavy drinking and smoking remain a substantial public health crisis that hinders the quality of life and lifespans. But, like any addiction, the process of quitting and limit drinking is problematic. Although the study revealed medications could help, it’s not always easy for patients to remember to take more than one given medication.

Ray said taking just varenicline does an amazing job without the use of naltrexone. However, every medication has its limits and is just one part of the equation. More research is needed on addiction, and how best to treat them, she said.

According to Ray, a person who wants to quit drinking and smoking should talk to their doctor about varenicline and do both simultaneously. Based on the evidence, varenicline has been shown to help with both addictions. As such, giving it to heavy-drinking smokers may be an ideal treatment to stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.

Funding for Ray’s clinical trial came from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

A hard copy of the report will be available in the September print issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry but is already available online.

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