07/09/2013 09:22 EDT | Updated 09/08/2013 05:12 EDT

Stop-Smoking Drug Safety Research Halted By Liberals, NDP Claims

Models. The Doctor Presents A Box Of Champix To The Patient. Champix Active Molecule Vareniclinechampix Is A Drug Recommended In The Framework Of Tobacco Withdrawal Date Of Authorization Of Commercialization September 2006, Commercialized In France Beginning Of 2007. It Acts As A Partial Agonist Of Nicotinic Receptors. Here, Conditionning Of The Beginning Of Treatment A Week Of Tablets Of 0,5 Mg Of Varenicline White On Blue Background Then A Week Of Tablets Of 1 Mg Of Varenicline Light Blue On Green Background. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

On the eve of the Westside-Kelowna byelection, the NDP is accusing the B.C. Liberal government of putting politics ahead of patient safety in the case of a popular smoking cessation drug.

The NDP used question period in the legislature to suggest that the government ordered an end to independent research into the efficacy and safety of Champix, which is currently covered under Pharmacare.

Champix contains no nicotine but acts on the brain to reduced cravings and nicotine withdrawal symptoms, and has been a big part of the provincial smoking cessation program implemented by Christy Clark in September 2011, months after she became premier.

Last October, the B.C. government announced that over 40,000 people had obtained a prescription for a smoking cessation drug since the smoking cessation program launched the year before.

The drug is also the subject of a class action lawsuit in Ontario over alleged side effects that include psychiatric problems, including attempted suicide.

The NDP says it has uncovered an email written by a former health ministry employee that was sent to the independent Therapeutics Initiative. In the email, the employee tells the UBC-based drug safety watchdog to stop their evaluation of Champix because "it's getting political and we aren't sure anyone wants to see a published evaluation."

Port Coquitlam NDP MLA Mike Farnworth said the drug should have been reviewed by the highly-respected UBC-based Therapeutics Initiative, which had its funding suspended by government in October 2012.

"There's a class action lawsuit in Ontario about Champix," he said during question period. "Your premier went and championed the drug, you went and suppressed the report, you suppressed a public report on a public evaluation.

"Why won't the government make it public? Put it out there so people can do their own evaluation," he said.

The NDP also suggested that tens of thousands of dollars in political donations to the B.C. Liberal Party by Pfizer, the maker of Champix, may have played a role in the Liberal government's promotion of the drug.

Health minister denies allegations

Minister of Health Terry Lake said that's absolutely not the case, and denied the allegations that important safety information about the drug had been suppressed by the government.

"This particular drug and all the drugs we look at go through a common drug review nationally, and that's based on evidence... from the research," he said.

Lake denied that the Therapeutics Initiative's research would have been vital to his government's ability to make decisions on the safety of a drug covered by Pharmacare.

"There is a very good system in place, a system that was developed through the recommendations of the pharmaceutical task force. Decisions are made by the ministry based on evidence from the Common Drug Review, nationally, and the Drug Benefit Council, provincially," Lake said.

Health Canada, which also reviews drug safety information, announced on May 30 that the product monographs for Champix and Zyban had been updated to indicate that a nicotine replacement therapy should be considered before trying either drug, and that a health-care professional should discuss potential side effects of the drugs and other smoking cessation therapies.

In 2009, Health Canada also underwent a label revision with Pfizer to update prescribing information after reports were received about serious psychiatric symptoms being experienced by people taking Champix. In 2010, three B.C. residents launched a civil suit against Pfizer in B.C. Supreme Court over alleged psychiatric reactions to Champix.

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