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Foes Hope to Put the Lid on Sale of Nicotine-Laced Water

Supplement* Bottled product could be on shelves this month. Opponents questioning its safety haved asked the FDA to intervene.

June 10, 2002|JANE E. ALLEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When you can't light up a cigarette--on an airplane or at work--or you don't want to smoke around the grandchildren, you soon may be able to reach for a bottle of nicotine-laced water instead.

A Westlake Village-based company hopes to launch its Nico Water nationally late this month or in early July. Each bottle of odorless and flavorless water will sell for $1.99 and contain either 2 milligrams or 4 milligrams of nicotine, about what's in a stick of nicotine gum or a couple of cigarettes.

The product has been criticized by several groups, including the American Cancer Society, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and National Education Assn., which last December filed a petition asking the federal Food and Drug Administration to ban the sale of the water until its safety could be assessed through independent testing. These groups contend that youngsters might seek out nicotine-spiked water and become addicted to nicotine.

"We are actively reviewing that petition as quickly as possible," said Kathleen Kolar, an FDA spokeswoman. She said the agency was aware of the company's plans to hit pharmacy shelves within weeks. But it's unclear whether the FDA will take any action. That's because the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the FDA has no authority to regulate the sale, manufacturing and marketing of tobacco products.

The manufacturer, Quick Test Five, which sells tests for pregnancy, AIDS and drug abuse, says Nico Water doesn't need FDA approval because it's being sold as a dietary supplement, not as a product to treat a disease or condition. The water simply gives smokers an alternative to way to satisfy their nicotine cravings, it contends.

Tim Owens, the company's chief executive, said Nico Water will be labeled for sale only to those age 18 and older, the same restriction placed on over-the-counter nicotine gums and nicotine patches, although he conceded that there's no way to absolutely ensure a store clerk won't sell to a minor. If kids want a nicotine boost, they'd get more from a cigarette or a can of energy drink, he said, adding that nonsmokers might even get a headache from the nicotine.

"Our market is adults, typically 21- to 45-year-olds," said Owens.

Tobacco addiction specialists say the effects of ingested nicotine usually last a couple of hours, but that there's no scientific evidence for how well nicotine-laced water might curb cravings or exactly how long its effects might last. Company spokesman Ed Haisha said a study is underway to determine whether Nico Water effectively controls nicotine cravings and whether it could be used as a smoking cessation product.

Jed Rose, the co-inventor of the nicotine patch and director of the Nicotine Research Program at Duke University and the VA Medical Center in Durham, N.C., said that when you swallow nicotine, about a third of it circulates through the bloodstream. But, he said, "how much that would reduce smoking behavior or satisfy a craving for a cigarette is the question."

Nevertheless, Rose said the concept is worthy of investigation. He and a Duke colleague are working on a nicotine-treated straw that smokers could use with their favorite beverages. They are submitting the product to the FDA for a formal review.

Dr. Michael Fiore, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, said he would prefer to see smokers use federally approved nicotine products--gum, the patch, an inhaler and a nasal spray--to cut back on, or stop, smoking. "Why not go with something that has evidence and some proof supporting it? I'm real reluctant to have any patient of mine use a product that's not been tested for safety and effectiveness."

Although Nico Water is being marketed as a supplement, not an over-the-counter drug, Fiore said he was eager to see if the FDA would take any action to ban its sale. "We had nicotine lollipops pulled [from store shelves] a couple of weeks ago, and they were touted in a very similar way without evidence supporting them." Those, however, contained a nicotine formulation that was not approved by the FDA. Nico Water contains nicotine polacrilex, the same ingredient in the FDA-approved gum and patch.

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