Vaping is extremely common today and youth vaping has reached epidemic levels. As quickly as public health officials have begun encouraging steps to reduce teen vaping, new substances are created that are able to slip past FDA oversight and land directly in the hands of youth. These new substances are known as synthetic nicotine.
Developing synthetic substances to avoid FDA oversight isn’t something new. In 2014, synthetic marijuana hit the shelves of gas stations and headshops. Synthetic marijuana drugs like “K2” or “spice” were marketed as a safer, legal alternative to marijuana, but were soon attributed to bouts of psychosis and other concerning side effects. But what really is synthetic nicotine–and should you be concerned?
What is Synthetic Nicotine?
Synthetic nicotine is a substance that is made in a lab with the intent of mimicking the effects of nicotine, but it is not derived from the tobacco leaf, unlike true nicotine. The substance was first introduced in 2021 by Puff Bar, an e-cigarette manufacturer that was previously ordered to stop ceiling flavored e-cigarettes. Puff Bar has announced they will be returning to the tobacco market with a product that contains “tobacco-free nicotine” or a synthetic nicotine.
Puff Bar’s website describes this “tobacco-free nicotine” as existing “without the residual impurities of tobacco-derived nicotine.” In other words, synthetic nicotine doesn’t contain the impurities that real nicotine does due to the extraction process that the substances go through.
Synthetic nicotine isn’t a new idea, though. Tobacco companies experimented with synthetic nicotine as early as the 1960s but determined that it was too expensive to produce for the masses. However, it is now considered a viable alternative to tobacco-derived nicotine.[3,4]
Synthetic Nicotine vs. Naturally Derived Nicotine
The main difference between synthetic nicotine is that it is made 100% from man-made substances in a lab. This isn’t to say that naturally derived nicotine is 100% natural, though. In reality, creating 100% pure nicotine from tobacco leaves is impossible. Even tobacco-derived nicotine products have trace amounts of other compounds or chemicals.
When it comes to the effects of the substances, real nicotine and synthetic nicotine produce the same effects, and users are unlikely to notice a difference between the two. Even the chemical structure of the two substances are similar. Because synthetic nicotine produces the same effects as regular nicotine, it’s safe to assume that it is just as addictive, and potentially as harmful.
The FDA Begins Cracking Down on Synthetic Nicotine
In April of 2022, the FDA announced that it can and will regulate e-cigarettes and similar products that are using synthetic nicotine. While the original 2009 law stated that the FDA can only regulate tobacco-based nicotine, this announcement expands its reach to include all tobacco products–even those containing synthetic nicotine.
According to ABC News, “the action targets Puff Bar and several other vaping companies that recently switched their formulas to laboratory-made nicotine to skirt FDA oversight.”
This announcement means the FDA will hold e-cigarette companies who are using synthetic nicotine to the same public health standards as they do other tobacco products.
Is Synthetic Nicotine Safe?
Nicotine is highly addictive and it is impossible to say whether synthetic nicotine is safe–or safer than regular nicotine–because it is too new and hasn’t been studied yet. It can take years for researchers to determine the long-term effects of substances like this. However, what we do know is that vaping is bad for your lungs, no matter what substance you are inhaling, and that nicotine is addictive, and synthetic nicotine produces the same effects as real nicotine. It’s likely that vaping synthetic nicotine is dangerous and addictive, too.
Just remember–many substances (K2, Spice, OxyContin, and even smoking tobacco) have been marketed as safe and non-addictive at one point or another, but today we know that each of these substances can be harmful in their own ways. It’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid using e-cigarettes completely–especially if you aren’t a cigarette smoker in the first place.
It’s also important to note that Puff Bar has not revealed its source of synthetic nicotine nor has it revealed the chemical processes used to manufacture it, so it is far too soon to tell if the substance is safe or not.