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July 3rd, 2009:

Warning: Quit-smoking drugs can kill … but they’re still on sale here

Beatrice Siu and agencies, HK Standard

Two drugs to help smokers kick the habit will continue to be sold in Hong Kong despite claims they may trigger depression or induce suicidal thoughts.

On July 1, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States ordered Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline to highlight the safety warnings on their respective drugs Champix and Zyban.

According to an FDA report published last month, 37 suicides and more than 400 cases of suicidal behavior were linked to the drugs.

Champix is available at 32 smoking- cessation clinics in public hospitals, eight private hospitals and around 200 private clinics and some community pharmacies.

Fewer than 100 patients are currently taking Zyban, though between 700 and 800 have taken it since it went on sale in 2001.
The FDA is calling for an additional study of the drugs to determine the extent of their side effects.

The FDA said patients do not have to stop treatment, but urged medical staff to be vigilant.

A spokeswoman for the Hospital Authority said Champix is a self- financed medicine, but added frontline medical staff will heed FDA warnings.

Pfizer Corporate Affairs director Geraldine Ip Pui-see said depression and suicidal tendencies are among symptoms contained in the drug description.

The active ingredient, varenicline tartrate, is solely for smoking cessation.

There is no concrete proof the drug is directly linked to psychiatric syndromes, and depression may also occur during nicotine withdrawal, Ip said.

Champix was launched in 2007.

Pfizer has applied to the Department of Health to add the warnings of suicidal thoughts to its drug description.
GSK marketing director Rachel Fan Sze-leung said Zyban, which contains the active ingredient bupropion, is also used to treat depression.

Fan said depression is included among the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and there have been reports of suicidal tendencies during treatment.

GSK will not withdraw the sales of its product in Hong Kong.

Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Hong Kong president So Yiu-wah said patients who quit smoking may suffer depression even without taking drugs.

“Nicotine triggers the brain to secrete dopamine, which makes smokers feel happy. So patients may feel depressed after quitting smoking,” So said.

He said hospitals will study any reports of mental illness before prescribing smoke-cessation drugs.
Instructions should also be in Chinese.

Hong Kong Sanatorium & Hospital corporate communication manager Sharon Lun Wai-ching said the hospital has prescribed Champix and Zyban to patients, but agreed to follow Department of Health instructions.

Man receives community service for threatening tobacco inspector

Staff reporters, SCMP

A 43-year-old man was ordered to perform 140 hours community service in the Kwun Tong Magistrates Court on Friday for threatening a tobacco control inspector, a Department of Health spokesman said on Friday.

The incident took place in a restaurant at Un Chau Street, Cheung Sha Wan, on March 28.

The man “criminally intimidated” the inspector when he was checking on the restaurant, the court heard.

The 43-year-old was subsequently arrested and was charged by police.

A Health Department spokesman said it was important to observe Hong Kong’s new legislation against smoking and respect people trying to enforce the laws.

“We urge the public to observe smoking prohibitions and to co-operate with law enforcement officers. Intimidation of or use of violence on enforcement officers is a serious offence and carries serious legal consequences,” he added.

Hong Kong has recently extended its ban on smoking in public places. This was after first legislating against it in some places – including restaurants and public bars – in early 2007.

From Wednesday, smoking is banned in all indoor areas at workplaces and public spaces. This includes bars, nightclubs, clubs, saunas, massage parlours and mahjong parlours.

Some industries argued the laws were too strict and would hurt their businesses because many of their customers are smokers. Some smokers believe the new laws restrict their personal freedom.

But the government said the tougher legislation is necessary to reduce tobacco consumption and curb harmful effects of passive smoking.

Around 6,000 people die of smoking-related illnesses in the territory each year, health experts say. Passive smoking is estimated to contribute to about 1,000 deaths annually.

The Health Department spokesman said: “Any person who smokes or carries a lighted tobacco product in a statutory no smoking area commits an offence and is liable on summary conviction to a maximum fine of HK$5,000.”

Anti-smoking drugs declared safe

Ng Yuk-hang and Reuters, SCMP

Two anti-smoking drugs ordered by US health authorities to display mental health warnings on their packaging were safe to use, the Hong Kong Department of Health said yesterday.

The US Food and Drug Administration has warned that Pfizer’s Chantix and GlaxoSmithKline’s Zyban had sparked 5,000 reports of depression, hostility and other behavioural changes.

But a spokesman for Hong Kong’s health department said there were already warning labels on the drugs and there had been no complaints.

He said there was no need to recall the drugs as they had been properly registered and could only be obtained with a prescription.

A leading pharmacist said people who were trying to quit smoking would often suffer from depression. Nicotine promoted the secretion in the brain of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that generated feelings of happiness and relaxation, Society of Hospital Pharmacists president Ewan So Yiu-wah said. “When people quit smoking, it is natural that they feel depressed because less dopamine is secreted,” he said.

Mr So said the packaging of drugs sold in the city already carried a warning based on European standards. But he called for translated instruction slips. “Many people do not read English and would not know what the side effects are,” he said.

Taking the drugs was safe as users needed to see a doctor every two weeks and their health would be closely monitored, he added.