The makers of transdermal nicotine patches have just finisheda first quarter of sales that could presage one of the mostsuccessful pharmaceutical product launches ever.

Three companies have U.S. marketing approval: Marion MerrellDow, which markets Alza Corp.'s patch; Ciba-Geigy Corp.; andAmerican Cyanamid, which markets Elan Corp. plc's version.

MMD sold $55 million in the quarter, far outpacing the $22million in sales of its Nicorette nicotine gum. Ciba-Geigy hadsales of $116.5 million and has sold a total of $198 million sincelaunching its patch in December. Cyanamid, which launched inmid-February, doesn't release sales figures. But analyst DavidSteinberg of Volpe, Welty & Co. estimates its sales at $10million to $20 million. That would bring combined first-quartersales to at least $180 million.

Steinberg is extrapolating $800 million-plus in first-year U.S.sales. He expects the fourth patch maker, Cygnus TherapeuticSystems Inc. (NASDAQ:CYGN), to receive marketing approvalwithin three weeks. Warner-Lambert will market Cygnus'patch in the U.S.

Although clinical data on the patches show that quit rates dropsubstantially over time, the rates are still higher than forNicorette, Steinberg said.

But the patches don't actually have to work all that well to besuccessful as products. "It's almost like the diet game," saidDenise Gilbert, a Smith Barney analyst. "You want it to workwell enough so people will try it again, because a lot of peopletry to stop smoking repeatedly." -- Karen Bernstein

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