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Science

New addiction treatments are coming to Japan

Fresh thinking begets gentler medicine for heavy drinkers and an app for smokers

In Japan, only 30% or so of people receiving medical treatment for alcohol or tobacco addiction succeed in quitting.   © Reuters

TOKYO New treatments to help quit smoking and overcome alcoholism may soon hit the Japanese market, signaling a shift in how the country addresses common addictions.

There are an estimated 1 million alcoholics in Japan, yet less than 10% receive treatment. Of those, it is said that only 30% succeed in overcoming their addiction after one year.

By the end of this year, Otsuka Pharmaceutical hopes to gain approval for the manufacture of a new drug to treat alcoholism. If given the go-ahead by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, it would be the first drug in Japan designed to gradually reduce patients' consumption rather than try to make them quit cold turkey. It could go on the market as soon as next April.

Nalmefene, as the drug is called, prevents the alcohol-induced release of dopamine in the brain and reduces the desire to drink. The drugs currently on the market work in a more direct and sometimes distressing way, such as by making patients feel nauseous when they consume alcohol.

Otsuka Pharmaceutical has already completed the third and final phase of its clinical trials of nalmefene on 660 patients in Japan. Before the trial, participants consumed the equivalent of 1.5 liters of beer or more a day an average of 23 times a month. That number fell to 11 times after the six-month trial.

If the drug is approved, Otsuka Pharmaceutical could start marketing nalmefene to physicians and psychiatrists who treat alcoholism.

Outside Japan, medicines such as topiramate, an epilepsy drug, and the muscle relaxant baclofen have reportedly been effective in suppressing cravings for alcohol. France is considering the approval of baclofen for use in treating alcoholism.

In Japan, the National Hospital Organization's Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center, the country's largest treatment facility for alcoholism, began accepting outpatients in April to help reduce their consumption.

TECH SUPPORT In an altogether different approach, a Tokyo-based medical startup began a clinical trial in October of a smartphone app designed to help people give up smoking.

CureApp plans to seek approval in 2019 for what would be the first such service covered by the country's national health insurance program. In 2014 the health ministry announced its intention to approve software-based addiction treatments.

The CureApp service provides support for smokers looking to quit on their own by teaching them ways to suppress their desire to smoke based on the psychological approaches used by hospitals. The app also sends users messages of encouragement.

The idea behind the service is to help people overcome the psychological aspect of addiction. Several similar apps are already available in the U.S., where they have been found effective in clinical trials with as many as 100 subjects.

In Japan, an estimated 6 million people try to give up smoking every year. Of those, 250,000 seek medical help, but their success rate stands at just under 30% after a year. One reason so many fail is that even if they are able to overcome their physical addiction to nicotine, they often find it difficult to cope with the psychological side of their habit in the limited time frame of their treatment.

CureApp's system is designed to help patients continue the treatment process independently and could be a game changer in how nicotine addiction is treated.

While their methods may differ, the two companies share a common philosophy -- rather than trying to coerce patients out of bad habits, their aim is to help them overcome their problems in their own way and at their own pace.

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