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“Quitting smoking is the easiest thing I have ever done: I’ve done it a hundred times.”

— Mark Twain

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — People love the idea of a simple pill to ease whatever ails them.

If you have a headache, take an aspirin.

If you can’t sleep, there are pills for that, too.

And now, some who are trying to quit smoking are turning to Chantix, including some servicemembers on U.S. bases in the Pacific.

Lt. Cynthia Maresso, a family physician at U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka, is one of a handful of Pacific-based physicians beginning to prescribe Chantix to help smokers kick the habit. So far, she’s cautiously optimistic.

Chantix hit the market less than a year ago. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, effectiveness was tested in six clinical trials that included 3,659 chronic cigarette smokers, each of whom averaged 21 cigarettes a day for about 25 years.

In the trials, patients using Chantix were more successful than patients taking Zyban.

In Japan, Yokota Air Base and Camp Zama medical services also carry Chantix.

In South Korea, Osan Air Base offers the aid but only after the smoker has first tried Zyban.

Several bases on Okinawa, too, prescribe Chantix.

That some bases have begun to prescribe Chantix at the onset of their smoking-cessation programs is a departure from the traditional approach, officials say.

Military smoking-cessation programs first used a combination of counseling and nicotine replacement therapies before moving on to medications, according to the Yokosuka health promotion manager Robert Sloan.

“But now, Yokosuka has been given the green light by the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery to begin prescribing Chantix right away,” Sloan said. “But we still offer counseling and other treatments.”

Sloan said that with Chantix’s early success rates, it may prove less expensive to put a smoker on the medication now, rather than wait until a person enters into the Department of Veterans Affairs health system to be treated for smoking-related health problems.

So why the enthusiasm over Chantix?

According to Maresso, Chantix is a “partial nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist.” In other words, Chantix reduces the amount of nicotine absorbed by the body by partially blocking its entry into cells.

“It partially binds to nicotine receptors, so when nicotine is introduced into the body, it doesn’t produce the same reward or sensation of pleasure,” Maresso said. “At the same time, Chantix reduces smoker’s tension and other symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.”

For smokers trying to quit, withdrawal systems are often unbearable. That is where Chantix may have a leg up on other medications, Maresso said.

According to Mayo Clinic literature, Chantix works in two ways. First, it stimulates the release of low levels of dopamine in the brain, which helps reduce the signs and symptoms of withdrawal. Also, it partially blocks nicotine receptors in the brain.

Maresso said that although it is too early to draw any conclusions, the results for her patients taking Chantix is “encouraging.”

This time, it’s personal

My wife, her mother, her sister and brother have all smoked for years.

In the past, each had tried to quit. Nicotine replacements — the patch and gum — and drugs like Zyban didn’t work. Going cold turkey didn’t do the job either.

But shortly after moving to Japan this past spring my wife received a shocking phone call: my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law had all stopped smoking with the help of a new drug, Chantix.

Now my wife is taking Chantix. She still smokes, but not as much. Additionally, the triggers for her to smoke — eating, driving … and me — don’t seem to have as tight of a grip on her as they used to.

The other morning I cooked breakfast. Afterward I was sitting on my balcony drinking coffee when my wife came out.

“Do you know what just happened?” she asked.

My daughter wasn’t yelling about anything, so in a very neutral tone I said, “No.”

“I just ate, and I didn’t smoke immediately afterward,” my wife said with a surprised tone.

Miracle of miracles! Who knows, maybe Chantix is beginning to work. My wife’s quit date is still a little while off, but she keeps taking Chantix.

And I keep my fingers crossed.

— Chris Fowler

Quitting’s effect on health

Twenty-four hours after quitting smoking, the chance of having a heart attack begins to decrease.

Two weeks to three months after quitting, blood circulation and lung function may improve.

One to nine months after quitting, the lungs can start to clean themselves again. One may notice less coughing and shortness of breath.

A year after quitting, the risk of suffering a heart attack is half that of a smoker.

Five-plus years after quitting, the risk of a stroke is reduced to the same risk as a person who never smoked.

Ten years after quitting, the risk of lung cancer is reduced. There is also less risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, kidney, cervix and pancreas.

Source: Health Promotion, U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka, Japan

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