Published: July 25th, 2011
A Vermont woman charged with killing her husband by driving their car into a tree is now claiming that the side effects of Chantix, Pfizer’s anti-smoking drug, pushed her to commit murder. A similar defense offered in June by a man accused of shooting his mother, resulted in a plea agreement to voluntary manslaughter.
In the most recent case, Christine Billis, 57, allegedly confessed to police last month that she intentionally slammed her car into a tree two years ago in an attempt to kill herself and her husband, Charles Billis. Now the judge overseeing the case has ordered her to undergo a mental evaluation after Billis claimed to have been taking Chantix at the time of the murder.
Police say Billis confessed after having allegedly told someone she knew online that she had intentionally caused the accident in a murder-suicide attempt. She claimed that her husband had been abusive and threatened to kill her and she was afraid to leave and give him custody of the children. The person met with her, taped their conversation, and turned the tapes over to police.
Her attorneys are now claiming that she was driven to try a violent and suicidal resolution by Chantix, a popular stop-smoking medication that has been linked to reports of sudden aggressive behavior and suicidal thoughts.
Billis is the second person in recent months facing murder charges in Vermont to invoke what is becoming known as the Chantix defense.
Kenneth Heath, 62, pled no contest to voluntary manslaughter in June in Vermont Superior Court in Guildhall for the shooting death of his mother, Christina Heath. The plea was reached after prosecutors and Heath’s defense attorneys determined that the psychological side effects of Chantix played a role in the murder.
Christina Heath was shot by her son, Kenneth, on September 24, 2008, dying in a hospital afterward. Kenneth Heath had started Chantix several weeks before, but claimed that the medication caused him to begin acting erratic just two days before the shooting. Christina Heath took Kenneth to see a doctor, who told him to stop taking Chantix. On the day of the shooting, the victim came to check on her son, and he claimed that he shot her thinking she was a police officer coming to get him.
The case had been scheduled to go to trial on June 21, and Heath’s defense attorneys were prepared to use a Chantix insanity defense, but the prosecution agreed that Chantix was a factor and reached a plea bargain that will help him avoid a life sentence.
Chantix (varenicline) was approved in the United States by the FDA in 2006, and works by reducing the positive feelings that come from cigarettes, blocking the receptors in the brain commonly stimulated by nicotine. However, the medication has been associated with an increased risk of neuropsychiatric injuries leading to behavioral changes, depression, aggression, agitation, hostility, rage, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and, in many cases, successful suicide. It also may increase the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
Pfizer, the manufacturer, faces hundreds of Chantix lawsuits filed on behalf of people who have committed suicide, attempted suicide or suffered serious injuries as a result of Chantix psychotic episodes.
The lawsuits allege that Pfizer failed to adequately test the side effects of Chantix on people with mental illness and depression before releasing the medication. Experts say that people suffering from depression and mental problems are more likely to smoke and more likely to have difficulties quitting on their own. However, Pfizer allegedly ignored FDA recommendations for Chantix testing on people with psychological problems.
Pfizer continues to question whether there is any link between Chantix and psychotic episodes or acts of violence. The drug maker has maintained that there is no proof that the drug’s side effects were at play in the cases.
In July 2010, a study published by researchers from the Institute for Safe Medication Practices determined that not only did Chantix invoke violent and unprovoked aggressive acts from users, but the violent urges tended to be most powerful when users first start taking the drug; often before they had gotten to the point in their Chantix use where they had stopped smoking. Researchers found that violent and aggressive behavior ended for 93% of the subjects when they stopped taking Chantix.
Another Chantix study from the Institute published in December, determined that Chantix was the prescription drug most associated with violent side effects. Chantix was linked to 408 reported cases of violence over a five-year period; more than double the number of instances reported for any other drug on the market in the U.S.