A cheap quit-smoking drug sold in Eastern Europe can help smokers kick the habit, but it’s not as effective as more expensive medications available in the U.S, a new study finds.
Researchers from University College of London led a study of 740 Polish smokers who were randomly assigned to try the smoking-cessation drug cytisine (Tabex) or placebo for nearly a month. They report in the New England Journal of Medicine that after a year, 8.4% of the cytisine group remained smoke-free, while only 2.4% of the control group were still abstinent.
More than triple the benefit? That may seem impressive, but Tabex’s success rate pales in comparison to that of varenicline (Chantix), a popular stop-smoking drug sold in the U.S., which studies show helps about 20% of smokers remain abstinent, compared to about 10% of placebo takers, after 12 months.
So why do the results matter? For one, some would-be quitters may be concerned about side effects associated with varenicline, including thoughts of suicide and heart problems, which we reported on here. About 4.6% of cytisine users reported psychiatric issues, compared with 3.2% of the placebo group, a small increased risk of these adverse effects. (Common side effects included nausea and stomachache.)
MORE: Study: Quitting Smoking With Chantix May Increase Risk of Heart Attack
Cytisine, which is made from Golden Rain acacia seeds, also costs much less than varenicline. It has been sold in Eastern Europe since the 1960s, according to the authors. A four week treatment costs about $15 in Poland and $6 in Russia; compare that with fees of more than $100 for a similar month-long supply of varenicline.
Cytisine works by mimicking nicotine and binding to acetylcholine receptors in the brain, which can fool the body into thinking it’s being exposed to nicotine. While even the authors caution that it may not be the most powerful anti-smoking agent available, they note it may be of help to a certain portion of smokers, especially in the developing world.
“The lower cost of cytisine as compared with that of other pharmacotherapies for smoking cessation may make it an attractive treatment option for smokers in low-income and middle-income countries,” the researchers write. And anything that curbs the desire for cigarettes is a good thing for public health.
Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.