One day about a dozen years ago, Etscorn was carrying an open vial in his laboratory at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro when he tripped and splashed liquid nicotine (a nausea-inducing substance he planned to test on rats) on his arm. "I wiped it off and didn't pay attention," he recalls. "But after about 15 minutes I felt nauseated."
He may be clumsy, but Etscorn had stumbled onto a way to create the nicotine patch, the latest way to quit smoking. At the time of his mishap, Etscorn had also been interested in both the study of addictions and how skin patches were being used to control motion sickness. "I had a great idea," he says. "This would be a great way to get nicotine into the skin. Almost immediately, I also realized this could be a way for people to stop smoking."
Now, Etscorn, 46, is known as the father of Habitrol. Since last December, along with other patches on the market, it has helped an estimated 3 million smokers try to break the habit. Manufacturer Ciba-Geigy has sold $375 million worth (at $100 for a month's supply). "I wake up and pinch myself," says Etscorn. "A Kentucky country boy is all I am." And now a millionaire as well.
The device is deceptively simple. Once a day an adhesive patch that delivers a steady dose of nicotine is placed anywhere on the body. Within minutes the wearer feels as if he or she has smoked a cigarette. Over a 12-week period, the dosage is reduced, and most patients feel neither the urge to smoke nor withdrawal symptoms like nervousness and headaches. Used in conjunction with behavioral therapy, the prescription-only regimen has a long-term success rate of about 24 percent.
As straightforward as it seems, the patch wasn't easy to perfect: After the liquid-nicotine spill, Etscorn, a nonsmoker, experimented for several months on himself and his brother, John, a longtime smoker. In 1981, John visited Frank in Socorro where he then lived with his wife, Sheri, daughter Keli, now 24, and son Frank IV, 21. Because the liquid nicotine would drip, Escorn says, "I flopped him on our kitchen table and smeared some of it on the hollow of his neck." After a couple of minutes, "John said it sure did feel like a cigarette." Thanks to his brother, John would later kick his habit.
Long aware of patches on the market being used to dispense antinausea drugs, Estcorn made some of his own—this time with nicotine. By 1986 he had a patent.
Like most high-profit inventions, Habitrol has encountered its share of competition and controversy. Three other patches have come on the market, and the University of California—which claims its researchers had the idea first—has filed a patent-interference claim against Etscorn and New Mexico Tech. In turn, Ciba-Geigy has sued two of its competitors for patent infringement. Of greater interest to potential customers, Dr. Richard Shea, medical director of the Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, Mass., reported last spring on five patch wearers who kept smoking while wearing the patch and—possibly because of nicotine overload—had heart attacks. The Food and Drug Administration, for its part, has not conclusively linked the patches to heart attacks. Said Shea: "It's not the use of the patch, it's the misuse." As far as his competitors are concerned, Etscorn is cautiously optimistic. "I hope we will win," he says. "It's for the courts to decide."
Ironically, while Etscorn was growing up in Franklin, Ky., his father, Frank Jr., a businessman, and his mother, Mary, a social worker, were part owners of a tobacco warehouse. "I played in the patches and in the summers worked in the tobacco barns," he says, "but cigarettes always made me dizzy. I could never figure what the attraction was."
An indifferent student who flunked out of Western Kentucky University, Etscorn discovered his calling in 1968. Living in Nashville with Sheri, a nurse he married in 1967, he took a course in psychology at the University of Tennessee. "It was just the most interesting damn subject I'd ever seen," he says. "It was fun. It wasn't work." After returning to Western Kentucky and receiving his degree, he earned his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University. In 1977, he joined the faculty at New-Mexico Tech.
The partnership has been profitable for both; Etscorn and Tech split the Habitrol royalties. Tech has built Etscorn a new $125,000 lab, and he has bought the school a $25,000 computer system. His other splurges have been relatively modest—in April, the Etscorns moved into a larger, three-bedroom house, and he now drives a 1992 Corvette, the only sportscar, he says, big enough to accommodate his 6'6", 260-lb. frame.
In February, Sheri, a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker for 30 years, finally quit with the help of her husband's invention. "It's one of the greatest things on earth to me," he says. "She's a lot healthier person, and that makes me happy."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Socorro