Worried You're Becoming an Alcoholic? There's a Pill for That


The news: You might be able to fight your alcoholism by popping a pill.

The BBC reports that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has officially recommended the drug nalmefene (Selincro), an opioid receptor antagonist that helps kill the urge for another pint. 

According to the International Business Times, the new program is expected to cost £288m a year (£3 a pill), but the lower levels of alcohol consumption among England's famously hard-drinking populace is expected to quickly add up to big health benefits. If nalmefene is all it's cracked up to be, it could prevent 1,900 deaths and 43,000 alcohol-related diseases and injuries in the next five years alone.

How it works: Nalmefene works by blocking the part of the brain that gives people a pleasurable alcohol-induced glow, killing that buzz before the party has time to get started. When used alongside counseling, it was able to cut drinking by about 61% in test subjects over six months. According to the Fix, first-stage clinical trials resulted in 63% fewer heavy drinking days and a 64% reduction in total consumption.

Since the drug only helps regulate rather than eliminate alcohol consumption, it is recommended for mild alcoholics who want to curb their drinking problem rather than stop cold turkey. Men who consume over 7.5 units of alcohol (about four pints) or women who consume over five will be eligible for the treatment, thus meaning about 600,000 people in England and Wales who would want to reduce their drinking qualify.

Nalmefene has been available in Scotland for over a year.

"The decision by NICE to recommend nalmefene for appropriate patients is important," Queen Margaret University Hospital's Jonathan Chick told the Mirror. "Although for many people dependent on alcohol, abstinence is the preferred and optimal goal, nalmefene represents an alternative step, helping people to cut down drinking to less harmful levels when they are not ready and have no medical need to give up alcohol altogether.

"This may help us to engage many alcohol dependent patients that we know are not currently receiving help."

It's no miracle cure: Still, some scientists expressed skepticism that the pill was as effective at reducing drinking as its boosters claimed.

"All of the clinical trial data are from people who were motivated to reduce their drinking," addiction expert Matt Field from Liverpool University told the BBC. "It simply hasn't been tested on people who are not interested in reducing their alcohol consumption, and most clinicians believe that no treatment can be effective unless people are motivated to change."

Others, like the Guardian's Hugh Muir, argued that the pill would do little to change England's unhealthy drinking culture and proposed that minimum prices for each unit of alcohol would prevent people from choosing to drink so much in the first place. 

Plus, nalmefene has its own drawbacks, like causing some pretty nasty side effects. As the Fix observes, the drug has a "dropout rate caused by symptoms like dizziness, insomnia and nausea — just 142 of 302 patients on the drug completed the study, compared with 205 of 296 patients on the placebo."

So while nalmefene certainly sounds like it has the potential to seriously help many of England's hard-drinking pub-dwellers, the jury's still out on whether it will have a huge impact on its own.