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Zinc Fast Becoming The Last Word In Cold Remedies Advocates Of Natural Medicines, Drugstore Managers Swear By It

Heavy metal - the medicine, not the music - has become the hottest thing in colds.

Zinc, more commonly found in pennies and painters’ palettes, is credited with shutting off the sniffle spigot on countless noses.

Millions of cold sufferers are gulping zinc lozenges as part of an ongoing trend toward natural medicine. And in buying into the zinc craze - at about $6 for a bag of drops - they’ve spawned healthy profits for Cold-Eeze, the most popular zinc remedy on the shelf.

“I tell you, it works!” said Evelyn Somers, a Coconut Creek, Fla., retiree whose anti-cold regimen includes Cold-Eeze and the herb echinacea. “The minute I feel a cold coming on, I take the echinacea and the Cold-Eeze. They really reduce the time element, the duration of a cold.”

That, proponents say, is the magic of zinc. While there’s no cure for the common cold, zinc seems to shorten the cold bug’s life span - if taken during a cold’s early stages.

Two medical studies support the contention. The most noted was conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio in 1994 using Cold-Eeze lozenges. The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found the zinc lozenges “significantly reduced the duration of symptoms of the common cold.”

Specifically, 100 cold sufferers who took Cold-Eeze found their symptoms gone in about four days compared with more than seven days for those who took non-zinc placebos.

Once the study was published in July 1996, sales of Cold-Eeze, manufactured by the Quigley Corp. of Doylestown, Pa., reached fever pitch. Though it has been on the market only since 1995, Cold-Eeze has already claimed the number two spot in profits for cough and sore throat drops; only Hall’s perennial bestselling cough drops surpass it, according to the Drug Store News.

Sneezy consumers eagerly cough up $5.99 for a bag of 18 lozenges - menthol, tropical fruit, cherry or citrus. In 1997, about 10 million bags of Cold-Eeze were sold for a total of $52 million.

And this despite advertising only on the QVC Network and Rush Limbaugh radio show. Word of Cold-Eeze’s efficacy spread quickly on the sniffle circuit.

“I have used it and recommended it to people and they all seem to be happy with it,” said Stanley Beck, a Miami lawyer.

Like everything these days, Cold-Eeze has its own Internet page. Its message board is replete with discussions on stock prices, anecdotes and why the company doesn’t advertise. Typical comments: “It’s a miracle!”

“Cold-Eeze is AWESOME!!”

“Why are the cherry ones brown?”

The grass roots ardor inspired by the all-natural Cold-Eeze represents a growing fad among Americans for homeopathic, or organic, health therapies. And the health business is nothing to sneeze at. Last year, Americans spent $1.3 billion on over-the-counter cough and cold remedies, according to IMS America, a health information company.

When Cold-Eeze first hit the market, selling in Florida at Eckerd and Walgreen stores only, it practically evaporated from shelves. Some 20 catch-up competitors rushed to develop their own zinc formulas, but Cold-Eeze is still hot, hot, hot.

“Cold-Eeze is still our most popular over-the-counter zinc product for colds,” said Yvette Venable, a spokeswoman for the Walgreen Co.

Why zinc stifles the sniffles is still a mystery, even to researchers. “The exact way it could work is unclear,” acknowledged Dr. Sherif Mossad, one of the doctors who conducted the Cleveland Clinic study.

Mossad and other physicians theorize that zinc bonds to viruses in the nasal passage and blocks them from replicating. Under this hypothesis, swallowing simple zinc tablets won’t reduce a cold, since the zinc goes to the stomach, not the throat.

Cold-Eeze lozenges must be sucked, not chewed. Side effects can be queasiness (avoidable if taken on a full stomach) or a bad taste. The lozenges, regular gobstoppers at about an inch long, leave a dusty, pungent aftertaste.

Not everyone is convinced Cold-Eeze spells relief.

Paul Doering, co-director of the Drug Information and Pharmacy Resource Center at the University of Florida, was mighty impressed when he first heard of the Cleveland Clinic study.

But like many others, Doering grew dubious. Especially after he learned that Dr. Michael Macknin, one of the researchers in the Cleveland study, bought 9,000 shares of Quigley Corp. stock after completing his research. When stock prices spiked after the study was published, Macknin made $145,000.

Doering also pointed to a November 1997 study which analyzed eight previous studies and concluded a zinc link to shorter colds is “still lacking.”

“You would have to conclude that the jury is still out on whether zinc lozenges do what they really say they do,” Doering said.

Yet Doering, a self-described “supreme skeptic,” is still surprised to find himself telling people if Cold-Eeze or some other zinc product seems to work, go on and take it. Though proof is inconclusive, wordof-mouth and anecdotal evidence supports the notion that zinc can put you in the pink.

And because zinc is non-toxic - you’d have to ingest very large amounts to harm your system - Doering said there’s really no risk.

“In this case the evidence is lacking, but there’s enough to show that it’s safe and might work,” Doering said, “so I say try it.”

Or as Scott Mazza, district pharmacy manager of 25 Eckerd Drug Stores in Palm Beach County, Fla., put it: “People are looking for the magic bullet. Zinc is in until the next magic bullet comes out.”

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