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Addicted to Nicorette

Smoking Gum

WebMD Feature

In the 2000 movie Bounce, Gwyneth Paltrow's character, Abby, explains that she really isn't a smoker at heart, but has started puffing on cigarettes to help her get off the nicotine gum to which she's become addicted. The line invariably gets a laugh. But for people who feel that they really have become hooked on nicotine gum, Abby's quirky observation may hit too close to home.

In fact, 1.5-2 million Americans try the nicotine-laced gum each year (it was originally introduced in the U.S. in 1984). And while many, thanks to the gum, have successfully kicked the tobacco habit, some seem to have weaned themselves from one nicotine habit only to pick up a new (albeit less risky) one.

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Most users of nicotine gum -- now sold over-the-counter under the Nicorette brand as well as several generic names -- see it as a short-term measure. GlaxoSmithKline, marketers of Nicorette, advises people to "stop using the nicotine gum at the end of 12 weeks," and to talk to a doctor if you "still feel the need" to use it. But that guideline hasn't kept some people from chomping on it for many months and even years. In an addiction forum on the Internet, one gum user posted a familiar message describing her 10-year-long habit of chewing between 9 and 11 pieces of Nicorette per day, and asking for "any suggestions as to how to get off the gum."

Long-Term Risks?

In a recent report evaluating data collected by ACNielsen, researchers concluded that 5-9%of nicotine gum users relied on it for longer than the recommended three months. About half that many were chewers for six or more months.

Nevertheless, if there are serious health risks from this kind of chronic gum chomping, they haven't been identified yet. "I've encountered people using the gum for 15 years," says John Hughes, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont in Burlington, and spokesperson for the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco. "And their main complaint is the cost of the gum." The price tag for using Nicorette gum is about the same as a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoking habit.

In some published studies, people have used nicotine gum up to five years, according to Richard Hurt, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "As far as we now know," he says, "there are no heart or vascular problems associated with long-term use."

Cigarette smoking itself, of course, can cause serious, life-threatening health problems. But the nicotine in the gum is delivered slowly through the mucous membranes in the mouth, and at much lower levels than the quick-hit surge of nicotine that occurs when puffing on cigarettes. At the same time, the gum does not contain any of the cancer-causing substances present in cigarettes.

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