Breath Strips Clear Air Between Kids, Adults

Like a breath of fresh air, melt-in-your-mouth breath strips are sweeping through America’s high schools and adolescent hangouts.

And, unlike with gum or other examples of the latest teenage oral fixations, teachers and teen club managers are embracing the new treats.

"You find pieces of gum everywhere," said Sena Baligh, special-events director for the under-21 Club One Seven, in Hollywood, Calif. "If they could throw it in the garbage, it would be fine, but it ends up in all sorts of places. And mints can be thrown or dropped and are sort of sticky. We thought, what can we (allow) instead of gum that will make them happy and won’t be sticky?"

The starch-based breath strips, one put out by New Jersey-based Pfizer under the Listerine label and another by Myntz, fit the bill perfectly. Cool Mint Listerine PocketPaks, which come 16 or 24 to a package, are slightly larger than a postage stamp and come as dissolvable, paper-like, green translucent strips. They're noiseless, discreet, more portable than a tin of Altoids and have the same strength as the recent wave of superstrong mints while seemingly keeping a mouth fresher longer. And they come in noticeably compact plastic cases.

"We found early in the design of the product that people take this container out … and it just kind of beckons, it’s a conversation piece," Pfizer’s Ellis Mass, the PocketPaks product manager, said. "It will fit into the infamous fifth pocket in your jeans. No one knew what that was for; now we do."

More than a few heard the PocketPaks siren call when it was launched late 2001. Within three weeks, the strips became the top-selling portable breath-freshening product, garnering a mention in Business Week as one of the best new products of 2001 and helping Pfizer’s consumer-healthcare line grow by 12 percent.

But perhaps most promising for the company, PocketPaks quickly became de rigueur for teenagers.

"I’d probably go through one of those packs a day," 15-year-old Michael Harrington, a high school freshman in Pittsburgh, said. "I was hooked."

His 12-year-old sister, Elizabeth, in seventh grade, said she wound up constantly bumming strips off friends.

"They’re cool. They’re like paper. They’re original," she said. "Whenever I’m at the store, I get them."

That youngsters dig the minty novelties didn’t surprise Mass, who noted that teens pick up on trends more quickly than other age groups. PocketPaks were actually made with them in mind, he said.

"They’re a product that are really designed to be loved, to be shared, passed along from friend to friend," he said. "High school students are crammed in a building for six hours a day and constantly interacting with each other."

Less expected but no less pleasing was the reaction the strips got from adults who have to watch over, and clean up after, teens.

"Janitors apparently love the product because they don’t have chunks of gum stick underneath their broom and all the little wrappers and all that," Pfizer spokeswoman Meghan Marschall said.

At Michael and Elizabeth Harrington’s schools, the strips fit nicely into an administration edict to avoid gum for mints.

And PocketPaks came just in time to help solve a problem Baligh’s club was having. Nervous teens wouldn't stop using chewing gum to relax.

"The club banned gum, but it’s impossible without doing full-body searches," she said. "Kids will hide gum in their socks. They need their gum."

She hopes that a club-sponsored promotion encouraging kids to give up gum for free PocketPaks will do the trick for both the teens and the hotspot.

But the strips have become a halitosis-conquering solace for more than just the teen set. Public relations executive Kim Mitchell, 30, pops them because she finds them not too sweet, convenient and great for hand-to-hand combat in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

"I take karate, and we’re always screaming at people’s faces and doing (close-quarters) defense moves, so I always want to make sure my breath is OK," she said. "You can’t chew gum and you can’t chew a mint because you’ll choke. But if you take one of those breath strips, the freshness lasts a good 30 minutes."