Is There a Pill to Cure Alcoholism?

Could a new pill be a magical “cure” for alcoholism? Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently announced new guidelines for the use of Nalmefene, a daily tablet that could theoretically keep cravings for alcohol at bay, according to the Guardian. According to initial research, Nalmefene works by blocking the part of the brain that gives drinkers pleasure from alcohol. More than 600,000 Britons would be eligible for the drug, which is taken orally once a day when individuals feel the urge to drink. The Guardian reports that UK health experts estimate that the drug could save as many as 1,854 lives over five years and prevent 43,074 alcohol-related diseases and injuries.

Under the new guidelines, UK general practitioners will ask patients about their alcohol use during regular check-ups. Nalmefene would only be prescribed after patients had taken an initial step to engage support services and therapy programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous. “When used alongside psychosocial support, Nalmefene is clinically and cost effective for the NHS compared with psychosocial support alone,” reports Professor Carole Longson, a leader of the Nice health technology evaluation centre. “We are pleased to be able to recommend the use of Nalmefene to support people further in their efforts to fight alcohol dependence.”Nalmefene, also known as Selincro, has been available to patients in Scotland since last October. A final decision about Nalmefene’s availability through England’s National Health System (NHS) will be made later in November. The drug could cost British taxpayers more than 288 million British pounds (458 million USD) per year. An individual tablet sells for 3 British pounds or $4.77.

Who is a Good Candidate for Nalmefene?

Currently, Nalmefene is the only medication approved to reduce alcohol cravings rather than completely eliminating alcohol consumption. The drug is taken when indivdiuals experience an urge to drink. Under the new guidelines issued by NICE, British males would qualify for the drug if they consume 7.5 units of alcohol per day. That’s the equivalent of approximately three to four pints of a standard strength beer. Women would qualify for the drug if they regularly consume five units of alcohol per day, the equivalent to half a bottle of wine.

Under NHS guidelines, individuals are considered dependent on alcohol if they answer “yes” to three out of the following six warning signs:
  • Strong desire to drink alcohol
  • Difficulty controlling alcohol consumption
  • Loss of interest in hobbies due to alcohol consumption
  • Continued use of alcohol despite negative side effects
  • Growing tolerance to the effects of alcohol
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms from alcohol use
In the United States, three medications are currently approved by the FDA for treating alcohol addiction. The FDA recommends these medications be taken in conjunction with social intervention programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or other psychological treatment programs. Antabuse is the oldest drug on the marketplace and works by interfering with the body’s ability to absorb alcohol. When even a small amount of alcohol is ingested, patients experience extremely negative side effects, which effectively forces the patients to stop drinking.

Naltrexone is a medication that reduces both the pleasure an alcoholic receives from drinking as well as the cravings that compel these individuals to continue drinking. Finally, Campral, taken three times daily, is a medication that reduces the withdrawal side effects associated with discontinuing alcohol use. In the United States, Nalmefene is currently in the testing stages awaiting approval. Depending on the outcome of clinical trials, the drug could potentially be the “magic pill” that alcoholics need to finally achieve long-term sobriety.

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