PRESS ASSOCIATION -- A nicotine substitute which can be bought online for 12p more than triples a smoker's chances of quitting for at least a year, research has shown.
Tabex, which contains the active ingredient cytisine, is obtained from laburnum seeds. Experts believe the drug is as effective as conventional stop-smoking treatments and could save the NHS many millions of pounds a year.
But despite four decades of use in eastern Europe, the pills are unlikely to be available on prescription in the UK for another two to three years. The British scientist who led the new trial spoke of the "Alice in Wonderland" regulatory system responsible for the delay.
Professor Robert West, from the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London, said he expected to see a flood of internet orders for Tabex once news about the drug got out.
"It's been available in central and eastern Europe for more than 40 years, we have safety data on millions of people, and we know it's effective, but it's not licensed in Britain," he said.
"People can make their own choices. A licence is not a licence to buy, it's a licence to market. There's nothing illegal about buying this drug online, but there's always the risk that you might not get what you expect."
The trial, involving 740 patients, showed that people who wanted to stop smoking were 3.4 times more likely to succeed with Tabex than with a "dummy" placebo tablet.
Participants took between two and six pills per day for 25 days. After treatment, 8.4% of those given Tabex were able to avoid smoking for a year compared with 2.4% of the placebo group. The low overall success rates reflected how hard it was even for motivated smokers to quit, said the researchers. However Prof West said his team was "extremely encouraged" by the results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which licences drugs for sale in the UK, warned of the risks of buying unregulated drugs over the internet.
He said: "Anyone who self medicates and buys their medicines from internet sites could be in danger of receiving counterfeit or substandard medicines. At best these will be a waste of money, at worst they can kill. You don't know what these products contain and you don't know in what conditions they have been made."