Gum wars: dentists lead the way

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The Independent Online
IN MEASURING the intensity of Britain's chewing-gum 'war', a stroll along any British street would be in order. Almost every paving slab bears multiple traces of chewed and discarded gum: ubiquitous encrustations removable neither by nature nor municipal brush. On London's City Road last week, I counted 326 of them on 50 yards of pavement.

'No one really blames the manufacturer,' said Philip Hamilton, British managing director of Wrigley's, the producer with 87 per cent of the market. 'They say we are just a dirty nation - which is a shame.'

Mr Hamilton has just survived an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading into allegations by a rival gum manufacturer, Warner-Lambert Confectionery, that Wrigley salesmen had played dirty tricks to boost sales. The OFT said it had averted a possible 'gum war' by winning promises from Wrigley that it would not interfere with competitors' shop displays.

According to Warner-Lambert, which sells Dentyne , Stimorol and Clorets, Wrigley employees removed its display racks in dozens of shops, replacing them with all-Wrigley displays. Caroline Horrill, Warner-Lambert's director of marketing, said there had been 140 reports of 'our stands being removed against the wishes of the retailer'. Mr Hamilton retorted: 'We have 150,000 stands, each weighing between 15 and 20 kilos and screwed or glued to the counter.'

Britain's chewing-gum market (including soft bubble-gum) is worth more than pounds 130m a year, having increased by 36 per cent in 18 months. In 1990, nine million Britons chewed gum regularly. Today the figure is 12 million, almost all of whom are customers of Wrigley and Warner-Lambert - both companies with US parents. Sales of all Wrigley products were up 40 per cent last year to pounds 115m.

Why have the British succumbed to a habit they once derided as American (vulgar) and dangerous (addled brains, strangled guts)? Judith Kark, of the Lucy Clayton School (deportment and etiquette), said chewing gum was 'still regarded as a vice . . . Like flossing, it's for the privacy of your bathroom.' So, whence the craze?

It originated in the Mexican sapodilla tree, which yielded a milky sap (or chicle) chewable as an alternative to tobacco, spruce gum and paraffin wax. It made a fortune for William J Wrigley, who in the 1880s offered gum free with soap powder.

Until 1990, Britain remained a moderate consumer. Two groups appear to have broken down resistance: sportsmen and dentists.

In Philip Hamilton's opinion, it is the dental profession that is pushing gum into the social classes that traditionally spurned it - making chewing- gum the third largest sector of the sugar-confectionery market. 'Chewing-gum helps to produce saliva, which is good not only for the teeth, but for the whole mouth area,' he said.

Consequently a growing variety of chewing-gums is available. On one shopping trip last week, I picked up 13 from Wrigley, three from Warner-Lambert two from Beechnut (the old English-made gum, now produced in Denmark for a Pontefract firm), and seven from Boots the chemists.

Medicinal chewing-gums are all the rage. Among the Boots purchases were Xylifresh ('helps to neutralise plaque acid that can cause cavities) at 39p for 14 pieces, and Buzz, a gum made from guarana seeds, a 'nerve-soother' from the Amazon ('Chew two and see what you can do'), costing 65p for 12 pieces. Other gums included Vitamin C, a sugar-free Danish product (58p for 20 pieces 'equivalent to 20 oranges'), and Endekay, an anti-bacterial gum ('clinically proven') which costs pounds 1.05p for 24 pieces.

Professor Alex Gardner, a member of the British Psychological Society, thought that Freud may have been right about us all having an oral fixation. 'You suddenly get to the stage of saying, 'Why am I chewing this rubbish?' But then you start to miss it. It is behaviourally addictive.'

''The correct thing to do, if one must chew gum,' advised Judith Kark, 'is to raise the hand to the mouth, remove the gum with a piece of paper and dispose of it in a bin.'

On gum disposal etiquette, Mr Hamilton added: 'There is quite a job to be done, starting in the home. I shall be seeing the Keep Britain Tidy people about this very shortly.'

But that's another gum war.

(Photograph omitted)