June 24, 2006 — -- There's a whole new way for smokers to get a fix -- a lemon-flavored drink laced with nicotine.
Nic Time, the company that makes Nic Lite, says its meant to tide over smokers when they can't light up on a plane or a bar. But critics say it could be one more way for young people to get hooked.
An 8-ounce bottle contains the same amount of nicotine as two cigarettes. Nic Lite was first available at Los Angeles International Airport for smokers who get fidgety on flights. Now, some convenience stores also stock it.
The company's Web site says it would also like to offer Nic Lite in bars, since more and more of them are smoke free.
Nicotine gum and the patch are supposed to help people quit smoking, but Nic Lite is marketed as a way to get you through until you can smoke some more.
While the FDA regulates the gum and patch as drugs, Nic Lite is classified as a dietary supplement. That means it was able to get to market without any oversight. The FDA can only take action if it's found to be dangerous.
"Somehow the FDA has either been fooled or has made another of a long line of bad decisions over the last 10 years or so," said Sidney Wolfe of the group Public Citizen.
Even though it worries some critics, Yale Medical School professor, Dr. David Katz said Nic Lite will probably not be as big a hit as other cigarette substitutes. He also said it is less addictive than cigarettes.
"The biggest difference is that the gum and the patch are used to help you quit smoking," he said. "When we ingest something, most chemicals that get into the blood stream go through the liver and that sort of filters those chemicals out. So there tends to be less of an effect when you ingest something than when you smoke it or absorb it through the skin. So it's going to be less intense and less addictive by mouth than if you smoke it or wear the patch. But don't let that fool you -- you still get the nicotine hit. That's why the gum, which in essence is ingested, works."
Katz said that Nic Lite is not a dietary supplement but a drug, and the FDA should regulate it as such.
"You're basically putting a drug in a soda can," he said. "Calling it a dietary supplement is ridiculous."
Nic Lite's manufacturer did not return ABC News' repeated calls, but the company's Web site says the drink helps curb disruptive smoker behavior and that it's the other ingredients in cigarettes that are harmful -- not nicotine. But the government lists nicotine as a highly addictive drug, with withdrawal symptoms similar to cocaine.
"The carcinogen is in the smoke," Katz said. "So nicotine is a nasty thing -- but it's not a cancer-causing agent. It's got a bunch of other things that make it something you don't want to put in your body, but it's not going to give you a lung tumor. Secondly, it's better than smoking for a major reason -- there's no second hand smoke that is going to hurt bystanders."
Nic Lite is labeled for people 18 and older. ABC News sent a young-looking --but not underage -- intern shopping. Out of six stores she visited around Los Angeles, only two asked her for I.D., even though California law forbids the sale of any nicotine product to minors. Wolfe worries that the drink will create a new generation of addicts who may turn to cigarettes later.
"They know that once people start buying this, whether they're smokers or not, they may well become addicted and they've got a long-term customer," Wolfe said.
Katz said that the FDA recently rules against selling the morning after pill "Plan B" because the agency argued that it couldn't be sure it would keep the pill away from people under 16 years old.
"Yet the FDA is okay with putting a nicotine drink on the market -- over the counter, if you will -- and somehow thinks we can keep it out of the hands of kids," he said. "The FDA is talking out of both sides of its mouth. You either can keep things out of kids' hands or you can't. And I happen to believe that kids are going to want the nicotine drink a lot more than the morning after pill."
ABC News' Elisabeth Leamy contributed to this report.