A 116-year-old product is now trendy
More than a century ago, New England pharmacist James P. Whitters invented a nasal irrigant to treat colds, allergies and sinus problems. Today James (Jim) Whitters III, who kept the small family business alive to honor his grandfather, is sniffing out new distribution outlets in response to a spike in demand. The nasal rinse, called Alkalol, has been sold at CVS stores (in the pharmacy department) since 2010. It is also available online at CVS.com, Amazon.com, Drugstore.com and Walgreens.com, and at regional chains such as Bartell Drugs, Harmon Stores and USA Drug.
In 1896 the first James Whitters developed Alkalol in the attic of the Taunton, Mass., drugstore where he worked. “He encountered doctors who complained that all the nasal irrigation products on the market at that time had too much alcohol or glycerin,” says Jim, a retired lawyer.
Nasal irrigation has been used for centuries to flush mucus and irritants out of the sinus cavity. But ingredients used in irrigation products in the 1890s caused the nasal passages to dry out and become susceptible to bacteria, explains Jim, 72. James P.’s product is a formulation of essential oils, extracts and salts with antiseptic and antifungal properties and only a trace amount of alcohol. Jim’s son, James Whitters IV, describes it as “saline rinse 2.0.”
Interest in sinus rinses has skyrocketed since 2007, when medical commentator Dr. Mehmet Oz discussed the benefits of neti pots and nasal rinses on an Oprah appearance.
While The Alkalol Company has benefited from the publicity, it has had to compete with larger companies. “Five or six years ago you would go into a [chain drugstore] and their sinus rinse category would be maybe one product or two products,” says James, 40, the company’s vice president. “It’s now six feet long.”
“It frustrates me that Alkalol isn’t up there,” says Jim’s daughter Katie Vaughn, “but it’s because we’re competing with these huge [pharmaceutical] companies, and they can get shelf space much more easily than we can.” Jim and his son and daughter are The Alkalol Company’s only employees.
James Whitters II, who took over the company in 1937, took “a 19th-century approach” to marketing, says Jim. James II, who died in 2005, focused on medical professionals rather than consumers.
“We inherited a company that had a great product,” James says, “but I would liken it to a house that needed to be taken down to the studs and rebuilt.”
Today James, a former journalist for the Boston Globe, uses social media to discuss sinus health. Katie helped build the company’s website.
“I get calls all the time on our consumer telephone line where people say it’s the only thing that’s ever worked for them,” says Jim.
Since 1977, the product has been manufactured and distributed by Denison Pharmaceuticals in Pawtucket, R.I. In 2010, Alkalol introduced packaging that included a nasal wash cup, so consumers need not purchase a neti pot.
The company’s revenues for 2010 were $1.5 million, up from $1.1 million in 2009, according to the Whitters family. They say they are in discussions with national retailers and project sales to grow to $5 million in five years.
“My seven-year-old daughter has said to me, ‘Mom, someday I would love to run The Alkalol Company,’” says Katie. “I think that would be really cool if someday our kids are still part of the company and it’s still in the Whitters family.”
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
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