Nasal strip firm is walking on air Health: A simple mechanical device is winning over snifflers and snorers. NFL plugs don't hurt either.

January 30, 1996|By Shankar Vedantam | Shankar Vedantam,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

To the millions who watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, the question was bound to come up: Why would a man weighing 250 pounds wear a strip of plastic over his nose as he chases a football across a field?

The answer: air.

"I put it on, and instantly I could breathe better," said Otho Davis, trainer of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was among the first to try the Breathe-Right nasal strips and then recommend them to his team's players.

"I thought it would have some type of eucalyptus or ointment to open the nasal passages," Mr. Davis said of the strip, one of many complimentary products sent to the Eagles in the hope of athletic endorsement. "But I didn't smell anything, and I said, 'What the heck is this?' "

"This" turned out to be two flat pieces of plastic inside a pad, with adhesive underneath. When bent around the nose, the strips try to straighten, pulling the nostrils -- and the nasal passages -- apart.

"You may open each passage by a millimeter," said Dan Cohen, chairman and chief executive officer of CNS Inc. in Bloomington, Minn., which manufactures the product. As far as your breathing is concerned, "it's a big difference, but it's not like you're pulling your nose apart."

Soon afterward, Mr. Davis said, "Lo and behold, Herschel Walker came in with the sniffles, and I said, 'Here, try this and see what you think of it.' " The then-Eagles running back liked it and wore it during a game, starting a trend.

Not only did CNS get a free endorsement on national television from the likes of the San Francisco 49ers' Jerry Rice, it got a product that looked, well, wimpy, associated with the gold standard of machismo.

Though the strips are widely used in the National Football League, the biggest market for the product isn't among burly athletes. Some 85 percent of the strip's users are snorers, whose nasal passages are often blocked, or people with chronic nasal blockages.

The strip's inventor, Bruce Johnson of St. Paul, Minn., said he made the device "out of necessity": He had a chronic problem with nasal congestion. Before he created the strip, he said, "I used to use a paper clip wrapped with medical tape, and push that up my nose, or use short strips of straws.

"One night as I was lying on my back, I was thinking of a better way to keep my nasal passages open," he said. "I realized I was on the wrong side of the building. I should be on the outside of the nose."

Once that inspiration came, finding the appropriate materials to make the strip and getting Food and Drug Administration permission to market it were relatively easy -- if a little painful.

used to experiment all the time," Mr. Johnson said. "If you put on five or six of them a day and tear them off, it's going to take the skin off."

The product hit the market in late 1994, approved as something that would open nasal passages. The recommended price for a 10-count package is $4.99.

The first nine months of 1995 saw almost 100 million strips sold, bringing in $36 million for the company, and about 10 million strips are moving off grocery and pharmacy store shelves every month this year.

"The biggest surprise is that no one thought of this sooner," said Martin Scharf, director of the Tristate Sleep Disorder Clinic in Cincinnati, who conducted one study on 20 patients. "The bottom line is that nothing good happens when you stop breathing."

Mr. Cohen said that the product had few side-effects, although some users complained of redness and skin irritation because of the adhesive.

"It's about as safe as a Band-Aid," he said.

"By last year's Super Bowl, there were a number of players who were using it," Mr. Cohen said. And then, even though he knows it was just coincidence, he adds with a touch of pride, "Eight of the 10 people scoring touchdowns were wearing nasal strips."

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