No Drinking The Food and Drug Administration last week approved the first new drug in a decade to help people diagnosed with alcohol dependence abstain from drinking. Campral (acamprosate), to be introduced later this year, is made by Forest Laboratories. Almost 18 million American adults abuse or are dependent on alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

No Cure Beth Kane-Davidson, director of Suburban Hospital's Addiction Treatment Center in Bethesda, said Campral could help those who can't fend off alcohol cravings. "Anything that will help that chronic relapser or help smooth the early phase of treatment is great," she said. But Raye Litten, co-leader for the medications development team of the NIAAA's division of treatment, recovery and research, warned that the drug is "not a magic bullet to cure alcoholism."

In three trials, 16 to 38 percent of patients abstained for three to four months on Campral. But in a fourth trial, in which patients had not stopped drinking before starting Campral, no patients abstained.

Seeking Balance Campral appears to work by restoring the balance between excitation and inhibition in nerve signals, a balance that gets altered by alcohol abuse. An older drug, Antabuse (disulfiram), makes people violently ill if they drink alcohol. Another, naltrexone, works by making people want to drink less, said Litten.

Only 5 to 10 percent of people treated for alcoholism are prescribed naltrexone or Antabuse, which don't work for everyone and are not widely marketed, said Litten. Forest aims to market Campral broadly to addiction centers and physicians, said company president Ken Goodman, and persuade insurers to pay for the drug.He would not comment on price.

-- Alicia Ault