Nicotine inhaler gives instant 'hit'

PUFF UP: Project leaderr Brent Caldwell demonstrates a nicotine inhaler developed by the University of Otago. It is being trialled in the Wellington region.
PUFF UP: Project leaderr Brent Caldwell demonstrates a nicotine inhaler developed by the University of Otago. It is being trialled in the Wellington region.

Wellington smokers will trial a new inhaler that gives a hit of nicotine without the hundreds of harmful chemicals hidden in cigarette smoke.

The inhaler is based on puffer devices used to deliver medication to asthmatics.

It isn't the first inhaler to contain nicotine but previous prototypes made the nicotine too harsh to inhale, Otago University researcher Brent Caldwell said.

"Nicotine is quite peppery and makes you cough but this can be improved - and our new formula is very tolerable."

Just over 700 smokers are being recruited to take part in a study over seven months. Half will have a placebo and half will have nicotine. All will wear nicotine patches and they will have a month to reduce their cigarette consumption before cutting them out completely and using the inhaler instead.

Dr Caldwell hoped the inhaler would become available wherever tobacco was sold, even though it would mean non-smokers could buy it to get a hit.

He disagreed it could be used by children as a gateway drug to tobacco. "They might actually decide that if it's safe, it's bloody boring and not cool to do."

While nicotine was highly addictive, it did not cause lung disease or cancer, Dr Caldwell said. "It's responsible for the addiction to smoking but is not actually harmful in itself. It would be fine if you used our inhaler for the rest of your life, it wouldn't do you any harm.

"But if you go back to smoking to get your rapid hit of nicotine, you're going to have a 50 per cent chance of dying prematurely as a result."

Instead of lighting up a cigarette, 716 participants will puff on the inhaler for their nicotine hit, which will reach their lungs, then brain, within seconds.

It mimics the instant gratification of a cigarette. Other replacement therapies - such as patches, gum and lozenges - are absorbed slowly via the mouth and throat.

The problem with current nicotine-replacement therapies was they did not provide the same feeling as a cigarette, and 90 per cent of people who used them lit up again within months, he said.

"You've got to be able to satisfy that deep urge, that desperate feeling, with something that's safe or they will go back to smoking."

Dr Caldwell said the inhaler differed from electronic cigarettes, which did not have standardised amounts of nicotine.

The nicotine also failed to reach the lungs, so the hit was not the same as a cigarette.

E-cigarettes were not approved for use in New Zealand as there was insufficient evidence to recommend them as an aid to quit smoking, the Ministry of Health said.

Smokefree Coalition executive director Prudence Stone said the risk of non-smokers and young people getting hooked on the inhaler was minimal because they did not resemble cigarettes.

"There is the danger because adults might be doing it in front of their children but the inhaler doesn't look like smoking at all. It's medication," she said.

Ideally, if approved for use, the inhaler should be available at corner dairies, Dr Stone said.

For more information on the study, see the University of Otago website.

The Dominion Post