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Marauding Critters Mean Boom Times For Repellent Makers

August 6, 1989

Undated (AP) _ With twitching antennae, buzzing wings and bloodsucking barbed mouthparts that embed themselves in flesh like fishhooks, armies of carnivorous insects this summer have caused a run on the sprays and lotions that repel them.

The unusually heavy infestation of flying and crawling pests that prey on humans is giving the companies that make and market repellents a lucrative season. Sales of insect repellents could rise by 40 percent this year over 1988 to $70 million, some industry insiders estimate.

″It’s incredible 3/8 I just can’t keep enough on the shelves,″ said John Learned, manager of Brooks Drugs Inc. in Burlington, Vt., part of what’s become known as the ″tick belt″ that stretches from New England to the Midwest.

Learned said he’s selling 10 times the amount of repellents compared with last year and that many customers are buying a half-dozen cans at a time.

S.C. Johnson Wax, which makes OFF 3/8 and dominates the repellent market, declined to disclose sales figures. But Richard J. Palmersheim, product manager of OFF 3/8, said the company expects sales to be stronger this year because of a general increase in the populations of all biting bugs nationwide.

Even businesses that don’t peddle chemical repellents are benefiting, via sales of items ranging from screens to other natural anti-bug defenses like garlic and brewer’s yeast.

Skin-So-Soft bath oil, for example, is said to be a hot-selling insect repellent. Avon Products Inc., which makes the oil, doesn’t advertise it as such, though users have sworn by its bug-deterring qualities for years.

Entomologists attribute part of the repellent boom to back-to-back summers of drought and heavy rains, which resulted in double populations in many regions because dormant eggs from dry 1988 hatched in this season’s moisture.

They also credit the boom to a scare over Lyme disease, a potentially crippling ailment named after the town in Connecticut where it first surfaced in the 1970s. The disease is carried by the Ixodes dammini, commonly known as the deer tick, a tiny but tough critter that lurks on grass and leaves.

Although these ticks are multiplying rapidly because of the rising deer population, which the bugs breed on when they’re young, scientists say the furor over Lyme disease has reached unfounded proportions.

″We’re not likely to see an invasion of the body-snatching ticks carrying off children,″ said Robert Hall, professor of entomology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He said products that profess to protect against Lyme disease are ″an effort to capitalize on the mild hysteria.″

Many repellent makers are revamping marketing strategies to highlight their products’ effectiveness against deer ticks, which hop on humans in the woods and can silently latch into flesh with barbed mouths.

In May for example, Eclipse Laboratories Inc., of Boca Raton, Fla., introduced Tick Garde - a repellent that uses the same recipe as other well known products that cost a third as much. Eclipse peddles its potion with advertisements that proclaim: ″This tick is a time bomb.″

Some reports project $5 million in Tick Garde sales this season, which would be considered a remarkably strong showing for a new repellent in an already crowded market.

″We’re not trying to scare or alarm,″ said Eclipse President Harvey Sosin. ″All we’re trying to do is help educate the public of something that does exist and is spreading.″

He attributed Tick Garde’s higher price to packaging and advertising costs. The product comes in a sleek, pharmaceutical-style box that looks like it might contain an anti-perspirant. The box also contains a brochure that explains the proliferation of Lyme disease and preventive measures.

″We spent a lot of money on that insert that is very educational to the consumer,″ Sosin said.

But Tick Garde has aroused anger among competitors because of what they call its excessive price and unfounded claims of exclusivity.

For example, both Eclipse and Littleton, N.H.-based Tender Corp., which sells a rival product called Ben’s 100, market a formula made by Speer Co. of Memphis, Tenn.

Tick Garde sells for $8.95 a six-ounce aerosol can, nearly triple the price of a comparable can of Ben’s 100 aerosol, which Tender President Boyd Bush called an identical product.

Like virtually all other repellents used on the body, they are based on the chemical compound N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide - commonly known as DEET. It was developed by the government in the 1950s and first used by the military.

DEET’s aroma repels bugs by blocking their ability to identify a warm, moist body it could feed on, said Roger Grothaus, entomology director at Johnson Wax’s bug lab near Racine, Wis.

Johnson Wax began using DEET commercially in 1957 with the introduction of OFF 3/8, which it claims was the first mass-marketed insect repellent.

DEET does not thwart bees, wasps and hornets, though it has been found to deter mosquitoes, biting flies and ticks.

Experts say any compound containing more than 20 percent DEET is effective against ticks. Tick Garde is about 25 percent DEET, but a number of other products contain even more, increasing the length of protection.

In fact, many 100 percent DEET products are available - like Maximum Protection OFF 3/8, Miles Laboratories Inc.‘s Cutter Maximum Strength and Schering-Plough Corp.’s Muskol Lotion. But these products are used almost exclusively by avid outdoorspeople and usually are found only in sporting goods stores.

Eclipse’s Sosin said Tick Garde works not just because of DEET. He said DEET’s combination with four other active ingredients make the product the ″best repellent you can buy.″

But entomologists are skeptical. Hall said DEET remains the crucial element of any repellent safe for the skin, and he’s ″not aware of any breakthroughs in synergistic chemistry that would target Lyme disease.″

There is a more powerful anti-tick protection, based on a chemical called permethrin, but it’s only safe to apply to clothes and lawns.

Johnson Wax, estimated to control between 50 percent and 65 percent of the repellent market, credits itself with the foresight of developing in mid-1988 a campaign targeting Lyme-endemic areas with special ads.

Miles Laboratories of Elkhart, Ind., waited until June to launch radio and print ads in the ″tick belt,″ touting its Cutter product as ″the most powerful tick repellent you can wear,″ said vice president Henry Furgal.

Hall said Lyme-tick hype has created the perception of a spreading menace, although it ″has been described in the medical literature for a long period of time, and people have managed to muddle through pretty well.″

Other insects have enjoyed similar notoriety. In the 1960s, ″it suddenly appeared as if the venemous brown recluse spider was spreading across the U.S. when in fact we were simply recording its distribution,″ Hall said.

Entrepreneurs saw opportunity then too. ″There were a lot of pest control jobs sold to homeowners ostensibly to eliminate spiders from areas where they were not a problem,″ Hall said.

He and other experts said the most important invention in the battle to repel bugs is window screening, which was developed in 1862.

End Adv for Sunday Aug. 6.