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Nicogel in the Hand a Surrogate for Tobacco in the Lungs


KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. -- With smoking bans extending to even the traditionally smoke-filled congressional Speaker's Lobby, a new tobacco-suffused hand gel called Nicogel promises to banish smokers' cravings for up to four hours.

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa., Jan. 12 -- With smoking bans extending even to the traditionally smoke-filled congressional Speaker's Lobby, a new tobacco-suffused hand gel called Nicogel claims to offer a four-hour craving respite.

Billed as a cigarette replacement for times when smoking is inconvenient, over-the-counter Nicogel will be entering the U.S. market on Walgreen drugstore shelves over the next few week.

Each pump or packet of the clear, water-soluble gel contains one-tenth of the tobacco in a typical cigarette, according to Blue Whale Worldwide here, the distributor.

"Nicogel absorbs into your skin and makes you feel like you've just smoked your favorite cigarette," said a Web site for Sunridge, a Blue Whale retailer. "Nicogel rubs in clear and contains none of the harmful cancer-causing ingredients found in cigarette tobacco."

Yet elsewhere on the Web site, Sunridge qualified "none of the harmful cancer-causing ingredients" to "virtually eliminating tobacco's harmful side effects."

Sunridge added, "Each serving is the equivalent of smoking one cigarette, so in the case of our small 50 mL pack, Nicogel puts 50 cigarette-equivalents in the palm of your hand!"

Although the hand gel obviously obviates second-hand smoke exposure, the health implications of shaking hands with a Nicogel user were not specified. Anti-smoking authorities did see much of a risk.

Customers will be required to show photo identification as proof of age to purchase Nicogel as they would for other tobacco products, said a Walgreen corporate spokesperson. The price is anticipated to be in the range of per 10-packet box, or 60 cents per respite.

The American Cancer Society, a major foe of smoking, had mixed feelings about Nicogel. "The most important concern is that using a bridge product like Nicogel may discourage smokers from making a serious attempt at quitting," said Thomas J. Glynn, Ph.D., who spoke for the society. "From a public health perspective that's a very big concern."

Smoking bans and public attitudes about smoking have created tremendous social pressure that can be a positive influence for smokers to quit, said Victor I. Reus, M.D., of the University of California San Francisco. This product subverts that stimulus, he said.

"It's actually something to maintain dependence on tobacco, at least that's how it's being marketed," Dr. Reus said.

However, it's not the first product to take advantage of this potentially huge market, said Matt Barry, director of policy research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, based in Washington.

"It's the latest in a long line of introductions," he said. "We've seen nicotine lollipops, nicotine wafers, nicotine water?"

The product is not particularly novel because virtually any delivery route that gets nicotine into the body whether orally, nasally, through the skin or otherwise will be effective in curbing tobacco cravings, Dr. Reus said.

Products like Nicogel take advantage of the unregulated grey area between tobacco products and tobacco cessation products. The cancer society believes Nicogel is not subject to FDA approval so long as it does not claim to be a product that will help a smoker quit.

Indeed, with no apparent regulatory requirement, there are also no data from clinical trials to prove that the product is safe and effective, Dr. Glynn pointed out.

"No independent research has been conducted to validate whether it's effective and safe," he said and added that there is "no indication of toxicity or level of nicotine it delivers" beyond what Blue Whale Worldwide claims.

Unlike patches, gums, inhalers and other products that contain pharmaceutical-grade nicotine, Nicogel contains tobacco, with an uncertain number of potentially cancer-causing substances.

"Physicians should be aware of the potential health effects," Dr. Glynn said, "both the broad health effect of continuing smoking and the more specific effect of carcinogens being absorbed through the skin."

Physicians and patients may find the lack of research on the product off-putting, said Lori D. Karan, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco Drug Dependence Research Laboratory.

"I do believe that persons are better off using FDA-approved nicotine substitution therapies than formulations for which the purity and pharmacokinetics are not as well known," she said.

Dr. Reus agreed, "This is not likely to be embraced by many people because it's not being advertised as something to assist smoking cessation."

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