07/10/2013 07:23 EDT | Updated 09/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Champix evaluation wasn't suppressed, health minister says

B.C.'s health minister says the NDP's allegations that government suppressed an safety evaluation of the smoking-cessation drug Champix ignores the fact that another evaluation of the drug has been underway since 2011.

In a written statement, Health Minister Terry Lake said his ministry did, in fact, turn down a research proposal from the Therapeutics Initiative that proposed to examine the effectiveness of the province's smoking cessation program, and the effectiveness and safety of the drug Champix, in particular.

Lake said the proposal was received in June 2012, but by that time another similar evaluation was already underway through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Drug Safety and Effectiveness Network.

"This research project was first proposed by the ministry in August 2011, long before this other research proposal was received," Lake said. "The research is expected to be completed later this year."

On Tuesday, the NDP asked during question period in the legislature why a Health Ministry employee emailed the Therapeutics Initiative, a UBC-based research group, to inform the group that an evaluation of the smoking cessation program drugs would be kept "in-house."

But the NDP suggested that the Therapeutics Initiative's proposed research might have led to results the B.C. Liberals didn't want to see, given the support the party has received from drug-maker Pfizer.

The leaked email from the ministry employee to the Therapeutics Initiative said, "It's getting political and we aren't sure anyone wants to see a published evaluation."

Lake said the provincial government would not be including the drug in the smoking cessation program, which was announced by Premier Christy Clark as a $15- to $25-million-a-year initiative in May 2011, if his ministry did not feel it belonged.

"To be clear, the ministry decided to include Champix in its smoking cessation program only after this drug went through a thorough review of safety and effectiveness by Health Canada, the independent national Common Drug Review, and B.C.'s own Drug Benefit Council.

"All of these bodies continue to monitor the ongoing independent research and data on the safety of this drug," Lake said.

The health ministry said that 135,000 B.C. smokers have signed up for the province's smoking cessation program since it was launched in Sept. 2011. Of those, 45,000 smokers opted to try Champix to help them quit.

Nicotine-free treatment

Unlike smoking-cessation patches or gum, Champix contains no nicotine. Instead, it acts on the brain to reduce cravings and symptoms of withdrawal.

Lake said that Health Canada has also conducted and completed several reviews of Champix, and has reaffirmed that it considers the benefits of Champix outweigh the risks.

On May 30, Health Canada announced that the product monograph for Champix had been updated to indicate that the potential side effects of the drugs need to be taken into account, and that a nicotine replacement therapy should be considered before trying the drug.

Health Canada said that it has received just over 2,000 complaints about serious side effects from the drug since it was approved for use in Canada in 2008. Over half of those complaints were psychological in nature, the agency said.

Currently around 200 Canadians have joined a class action lawsuit against Pfizer alleging it caused serious side effects including psychiatric problems and attempted suicide. Pfizer settled a number of lawsuits related to Chantix — the same drug as Champix, but with a different marketing name — in the U.S. in 2012 and 2013.