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Synthetic Nicotine: What It Is and Its Risks

Key points:

  • Synthetic nicotine is still nicotine – meaning it’s addictive and has harmful effects, especially on youth.

  • It has been challenging to restrict synthetic nicotine’s availability in the marketplace.

 

What is synthetic nicotine?

vape pen and chemicals

Though synthetic nicotine has been around for a while, its presence has dramatically grown as it finds its way into e-cigarettes and vape products increasingly used by young individuals. Synthetic nicotine is created in a laboratory using chemicals – often of unknown origin and methods – rather than tobacco leaves. Because it’s a liquid, it’s easy to put into vape products.


Synthetic nicotine is also referred to as non-tobacco nicotine (NTN), particularly among those who aim to market and sell products utilizing it. Puffbar, one of the leading disposable e-cigarette manufacturers, started selling a new product line in the United States using synthetic nicotine in February 2021. In an advertisement, the company marketed it as “tobacco-free nicotine” or TFN, described as “a virtually tasteless, odorless nicotine without the residual impurities of tobacco-derived nicotine.”


Is synthetic nicotine less harmful?


Girl thinking creatively

Much still needs to be learned about the composition of synthetic nicotine and its potential health implications, thereby warranting more research. However, synthetic nicotine is still nicotine – meaning it’s most likely as addictive as regular nicotine spurring on frequent use. Nicotine use can disrupt brain development and negatively influence brain function that controls attention level, learning, memory, mood, and impulse control. It is best for younger people to avoid nicotine in any form, as the brain does not finish maturing and developing until the mid-to-late-20s.


Is synthetic nicotine regulated?


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now regulates synthetic nicotine, but this is a relatively recent occurrence, as previously, only products using nicotine from tobacco were regulated. This created a loophole for e-cigarette and vape companies to sell products made with synthetic nicotine without FDA oversight.


An updated federal law went into effect on April 14, 2022, clarifying FDA’s authority to regulate products containing nicotine from any source. The specific requirements of the law include the following:

  • Not selling synthetic nicotine products in person or online to people under the age of 21

  • Not advertising these products as being less harmful without FDA authorization

  • Requiring manufacturers to submit their products for FDA review before they are legally allowed to be sold

Why is enforcement of synthetic nicotine regulation lagging?

chemical formulas and synthetic nicotine

The number of applications from manufacturers seeking FDA authorization has been tremendous.

According to the FDA website, nearly one million applications from more than 200 companies were received by May 14, 2022, the deadline for submission date. An FDA website update as of October 17, 2022, reveals the review process is ongoing; however, currently, no product using synthetic nicotine has received authorization or is allowed to be sold legally. Unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into these products disappearing from the marketplace, despite violation warnings from the FDA.


While regulation of synthetic nicotine-containing items is technically in place, enhanced enforcement with tools like vape detection is needed to ensure e-cigarettes and vaping products preferred by young people are not available for purchase and use.


By Linda Antinoro Reviewed by Cindy Bistany, DHSc


References:

  1. American Lung Association. What is synthetic nicotine? American Lung Association. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/blog/synthetic-nicotine#:~:text=Synthetic%20nicotine%20is%20created%20in,production%20costs%20have%20gone%20down.

  2. Jordt, S. Synthetic nicotine has arrived. Tobacco Control. Published Online First: September 07 2021. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2021-056626 Retrieved from https://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2021/09/07/tobaccocontrol-2021-056626

  3. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Regulation and enforcement of non-tobacco nicotine (NTN) products. FDA. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/products-ingredients-components/regulation-and-enforcement-non-tobacco-nicotine-ntn-products#Is%20NTN%20addictive

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