August 8, 2008 – This week in Arkansas the Veterans Affairs inspector general found gross violations in a VA human testing program. For soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, health care and the transition back into society are important issues. Questions are being raised about what types of health care treatments soldiers should receive. Congress held another hearing on a recent VA case involving veteran negligence based on a series of Washington Times articles. In VA hospitals a non-smoking drug Chantix is given to veterans to help them quit smoking. This even after the FDA, drug maker Pfizer and the VA itself found the drug to have serious risks, including suicidal behavior.
REP. BOB FILNER (D-CA), CHAIRMAN, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS AFFAIRS: But this is a controlled study. This was not the last thing they could ever have to save their life; this was something to help them stop smoking. And the secretary said, “Well, you know, smoking causes death.” And I said, “Well, so does suicide.”
TEXT ON SCREEN: Since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs has advocated the use of a drug called Chantix to help veterans quit smoking. It is suspected of triggering more than 40 suicides and nearly 400 suicide attempts in the U.S.
JAMES ELLIOT, IRAQ WAR VETERAN SUFFERING FROM PTSD: I mean, I have a rule. I try not to go to places where I’m not allowed to smoke. Like, when I was in Congress, I [inaudible] mouth. And when I go to the doctor, I [inaudible] mouth.
VOICEOVER: James Elliot is one of many soldiers coming home from war not completely whole. He struggles daily with smoking and posttraumatic stress disorder. James wanted to quit his smoking habit. After talking to a counselor in the VA, he enrolled in a VA study that was supposed to help him quit smoking.
ELLIOT: I had known about this smoking cessation program in its various forms, and my counselor, he knew I wanted to quit smoking, and informally, you know, we talked about the benefits of that for awhile.
VOICEOVER: James, along with more than 200 veterans, took part in the PTSD and smoking cessation study 519. All the while, the VA were reviewing the drug after reports of concerns from doctors. They found eleven vets had attempted suicide, nine had suicidal thoughts, one attempted homicide, and six suffered from hallucinations while using Chantix. At the time, not one patient in he study or the VA was notified. The first lawsuit was filed against drug maker Pfizer in July by Indiana native Linda Collins. Her husband David committed suicide while taking Chantix. He started using the drug the same time as James Elliot.
ELLIOT: I am somewhat angry. And I definitely feel like a guinea pig. And I say that because I was misled, lied to, when I asked questions. And that’s how you treat a lab rat, you know? You deceive a lab rat.
FILNER: The key issue for me is when they heard that there were side effects, particularly suicidal thoughts and attempts side effects, dealing with a very vulnerable population to begin with, that is, those with PTSD, alarms should have gone off right away.
VOICEOVER: James receives his first warning letter from the VA on 29 February. It makes no mention of suicide or suicidal behavior linked to Chantix.
ELLIOT: Slowly but surely, you know, I was getting a little bit more aggressive in my behavior, more reclusive. My moods, my sleep habits, dreams, everything became—the PTSD, I guess you could say, was so amplified that, yes, it started to worry me. I was most definitely all alone. And it’s not even just a figment of speech [sic]; you know, I really was alone. Nobody knew. You know. Mom, Dad, Grandma, the 7-Eleven person, you know, they have no clue.
VOICEOVER: James has a near-death standoff at the end of this street with police, daring him to kill him. Luckily, he’s tasered and arrested.
ELLIOT: My doctor had me transfered to the mental health wing of the jail, and then, two days later, I was transfered to the psychiatric ward at Washington DC VA Medical Center. Had they been honest, of course, none of this would have happened, because I would have stopped taking Chantix.
TEXT ON SCREEN: In June of 2008, the VA finally sent 32,000 veterans warning letters about the suicidal risks associated with Chantix. In July, James testified before Congress about his brush with suicide.
PHOTOGRAPH CAPTION: James Peake, Secretary of Veteran Affairs (James Elliot in background).
VOICEOVER: The House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a congressional hearing in July to confront the Department of Veterans Affairs, the FDA, and Pfizer on the lack of oversight involving Chantix.
FILNER: We don’t know and they don’t know if the doctors ever really talked about it with their patients. There was no real follow-up—and for, again, a psychotic-inducing drug with people who already have mental illness. Someone dropped the ball. As I said, if it was my child in the study, I would have made them drop out. And what bothers me is if the final proof will come when there’s some suicides. Then they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, there was causality.”
INTERVIEWER: How is kicking the smoking habit coming?
ELLIOT: I smoke now than I did before. Yeah, for the record, I smoke quite a bit more now than I used to.