KAI RYSSDAL: We mentioned last week that Altria's spinning off its stake in Kraft Foods to concentrate on the tobacco business. Altria's the parent company of Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro among other brands of cigarettes.
Shares of the world's biggest tobacco company are up 20 percent over the past year, despite the fact that you can't smoke in too many places anymore. So now, of course, there's a product trying to capitalize on those smoking bans.
Nicogel's just that. A gel with nicotine in it that you rub on your hands.
Marketplace's Sean Cole is a smoker. We figured he'd be the perfect guy for the story.
SEAN COLE:Well, the first thing I had to do was try it.
I went to the Walgreens down the street where they had it at the counter by the phone cards and candy bars and lip balm. A blue and white box. Flip top. Like a Marlboro hard pack, but skinnier. Each box contains 10 little plastic packets of Nicogel. Each packet contains about a tenth of the nicotine of a cigarette. And I hadn't had a cigarette yet that morning. And I really needed one.
SALES LADY: This is 6.99.
SALES LADY: Ah, I'm gonna need your birthday.
COLE: My birthday. Oh, because it's a nicotine product. Uhhhh, 11 . . . I can't remember. 11-19-71.
BILL WHALEN: Nicogel's an adult product, and our goal is not for children to use this thing. And we want to make sure that children don't use it, so we're taking every precaution to do that.
This is Bill Whalen, owner of Blue Whale Worldwide, which is distributing Nicogel in the U.S. He says it contains tobacco extract. Not just nicotine, but all 1,800 components of the plant. So it does a better job of curbing your jones than Nicoderm or Nicorette, he says.
But he doesn't claim that Nicogel can help you quit smoking, the way the patch and the gum do.
WHALEN: Oh no, no, no, not, not at this moment. Nicogel is designed to replace the cigarette in the places where you can't smoke and where it's inconvenient to smoke. But at the same time, by doing that, you are reducing the person's tobacco consumption. It's a great thing. And you're also taking away the secondhand smoke.
It's discreet. Yyou know, you could sit in the boardroom or an airplane.
Or in your car, in the Walgreens parking lot.
COLE: Directions: open packet . . .
WHALEN: It's odorless.
COLE:Smells kinda funny too.
WHALEN: Then you rub it into your hands and you're done.
And a few minutes later . . .
COLE:Huh. I . . . huh. I think I feel a little . . . relieved in a way.
But I didn't wanna to feel "relieved in a way." I wanted to feel sated, which is what Nicogel promises right on the label: "Cigarette satisfaction in a hand gel."
COLE: I suppose it has taken the edge off. I don't feel so suicidal now.
All nicotine addicts know that feeling. A special kind of panic that sets in when you know you can't smoke for a while. Some smokers use Nicorette to get through it. Others turn to chewing tobacco, or moist smokeless as it's known in the industry.
DAVID BISHOP: What is hindering cigarettes is actually helping moist smokeless.
David Bishop is a partner at the retail consultant group Willard Bishop. He says sales of moist smokeless tobacco went up 8 or 9 percent last year, and are expected to climb again this year. Whereas cigarette sales have been declining since the late 80s, he says. Which is probably why a couple of the top cigarette companies are starting to test market another smokeless product — spitless, too: Little tobacco pouches that you tuck in your cheek.
BISHOP: I think it's understandable for cigarette companies to look for alternative growth vehicles that will offset the declining profit from cigarettes.
So this is the climate Nicogel's jumping into. The question is, is it a friend or an enemy of the cigarette companies?
Bill Whalen says his company honestly wants people to smoke less. But if they smoke less and less, they eventually won't need Nicogel. But down the road, Whalen says, after more clinical trials, he does finally want to market Nicogel as a quitting aid.
Sadly, I don't think it would work in my case. After about an hour on the gel I was frantic for a cigarette.
COLE: The question is, where are my cigarettes . . .
I mentioned this to Bill Whalen.
WHALEN: Interesting. Are you a . . . how many packs a day are you? Are you a one pack a day guy?
COLE: I'm about a one-pack, maybe three-quarters-of-a-pack a dayer.
WHALEN: During our efficacy tests, we look in . . . right now, we're looking at about 87 percent of people that use Nicogel get it and it works perfectly for them. There's probably 13 percent of the people that, frankly, it's not strong enough for.
Great. This is probably the only time when I haven't wanted to be exceptional. Whalen said some people need two packets of Nicogel. So I tried that. And I didn't smoke . . . for an hour and 18 minutes.
[ZIPPO LIGHTER CLICKING OPEN. INHALING / EXHALING SMOKE]
In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.