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Kicking The Nicotine Habit

Mindful that lung cancer is the nation's number 1 cancer killer, Americans have become obsessed with kicking the smoking habit, spending more than $800 million a year on products ranging from patches to pills to gum.

Sales of smoking cessation gum alone have increased 500% in the past 8 years.

But like cigarettes, the gum contains nerve-calming nicotine. Few smokers are aware of one possible consequence: getting addicted to the gum.

Jennifer Drake never imagined her New Year's resolution to quit smoking would turn into another addiction.

"I went out and I bought a box of Nicorette, my first box, and it's been my friend ever since," she says.

That was 4 years ago. Today, Jennifer is still hooked on the over-the-counter gum.

"It's as good as having a cigarette when you finally have one because you still get that little nicotine rush," she says. "Instead of getting a lung rush, you get a slow burn down the back of your throat."

"Nicotine is more addictive than heroin," says Dr. Elliot Wineburg, the director of the New York Stop Smoking Medical Center at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

Dr. Wineburg says that at first the gum satisfies a smoker's need for nicotine. Users are supposed to be gradually weaned off the gum within 3 months as the craving subsides.

But studies show that up to 10% of smokers continue chewing for a year or more and up to 2% chomp away for several years, if not indefinitely.

"Every box I buy is the last box," Drake says. "And then what happens is when I run out and if I really mean it, and I don't buy another box, then I smoke."

Experts say lighting up again is the worst thing you can do but that it's easy to give in.

The gum can cost double the amount of cigarettes, and there's a lingering misconception--that the gum is as dangerous as smoking itself.

"Nobody has ever died of nicotine gum--nobody," Wineburg says.

Wineburg says the sugarless gum is perfectly safe: It contains none of the carbon monoxide, cyanide, and other organic chemicals found in cigarettes that can cause cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

"I'd give someone who just had a heart attack nicotine gum if he's going to go out and buy cigarettes, because the cigarettes will really polish him off," Wineburg says.

It's tough to quit chewing for a number of reasons. One big one is improper dosage: Many smokers buy the gum without consulting their doctor, and others chew the gum so rapidly that it prevents the nicotine from being absorbed gradually.

"You don't chew [it] like Wrigley's Spearmint and swallow quickly and get rid of it in 5 minutes," Dr. Wineburg explains. "You let it sort of hang around, take an occasional jaw, and then let the nicotine leak out into the saliva."

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