ATLANTA (AP) _ There's no excuse for bad breath anymore.
Pharmacy shelves are stocked with mints to mask a garlic-laden lunch, gum to whiten teeth while it freshens, oh-so-sexy sprays and the latest weapon in the armory against foul breath: a gelatinous strip that sticks to the tongue, killing germs as it dissolves
The multibillion dollar fresh-breath market _ fueled by American's obsession with hygiene and drug companies' marketing blitzes _ is booming. Worldwide, consumers spend more on breath agents than on toothpaste, and the category's size is similar to skin care, shampoo and diaper products, according to consumer products giant Procter & Gamble.
``People in this country are more cosmetically oriented today,'' said Dr. Jacob Trager, a dentist in St. Petersburg, Fla. ``How you look, deodorants, your breath _ it's a big thing. People just don't want to get turned off.''
The clinical term for bad breath is halitosis. It originates in the back of the mouth, where food particles collect near the base of the tongue in a warm, damp spot well-suited for bacterial growth. Over time, the bacteria form odor-causing sulfurous compounds.
It's a problem many dentists say can be solved with a toothbrush. They believe companies have created a profitable niche by exploiting consumers' vanity.
Halitosis ``is 40 percent problem and 60 percent developing a neurosis to develop a market,'' said Dr. Peter Jacobsen, director of oral medicine at University of the Pacific Dental School in San Francisco.
Dentists say tongue scrapers are the best method of removing the odor-producing debris _ many pharmacies now offer more than one model.
Listerine has countered with PocketPaks, a jellified strip that dissolves on the tongue. Its manufacturer, Pfizer, credited the product with helping spur a 12 percent jump in fourth-quarter income in its consumer health care division.
Last year, Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. imported its Orbit breath gum from Europe to the United States, rounding out its trio of gums Extra and Eclipse, the latter billed as ``immediate breath control.''
Wrigley and P&G recently unveiled the first product in their new partnership _ a gum to whiten teeth while it's chewed.
Church & Dwight Co., the New Jersey company best known for Arm & Hammer baking soda, introduced a new line of ``oral deodorization'' products last summer.
Historically, dentists have had different options for treating cavities and gum disease, but little to offer patients battling halitosis, said Bruce Nelson, Church & Dwight's director of clinical evaluations.
``There was a need for the research community to give the dentist more of a means to address the problem,'' he said.
As the research geared up, so has the marketing, which has helped ratchet up prices for some of the breath-gear kits of drops, sprays and liquids to more than $40.
The fresh-breath phenomenon has also spawned self-testing kits, including one from a New York company, Emjoi Inc., that assigns breath a shade based on saliva content.
``I would say that people are more concerned today about how they're perceived by others,'' said Ira Shuldman, national sales manager for Emjoi Inc., noting that bad breath remains one of the few taboo topics in a country where virtually everything's open to frank discussion.
``No one will ever tell you unless they're a good friend of yours.''