The European Union bans a variety of synthetic nicotine substances but US plants have found ways around that.
If you were a tobacco consumer back in 2016, then the possibility of using synthetic nicotine is likely to have crossed your mind.
After all, these products are now very popular with people trying to quit smoking altogether, and manufactures were already looking to secure patents for their use in those trying to stop using drugs.
To give some perspective to that, there are less than 20 manufacturers of cigarette substitute products in the US. That makes them a very small industry.
There were two companies that turned up in filings I saw from 2016: nicotine derived from tobacco plants and candy, “or other artificially-produced aldehydes” as they are called by the FDA.
To overcome safety concerns, manufacturers claimed the use of these products did not present a risk to users, as they had been “developed from materials ‘derived from food, not from drugs’”, according to documents filed with the FDA. One company made this point and argued that the food safety authority should not accept product containing nicotine as an ingredient. “Until the Food and Drug Administration has such a reference opinion, we have maintained a sufficiently high level of purity as to eliminate the risk that our product will cause the ingestion of our ingredient,” they said.
However, companies could not convince them that the synthetic nicotine was not safe, as there were still safety concerns about exposing a plant to the toxic compound.
So what is going on here?
The substance in question is called a PPAC, or anyone active component. Companies are finding ways to get around the US ban on any analog of nicotine, even if it is derived from plants.
These plant toxins are naturally found in various forms of plant life, and while they are generally benign, once the toxin is converted to a PPAC, they can be dangerous and much more addictive than nicotine.
Synthetic nicotine is the same type of nicotine derived from plants, but it works differently in the human body. It causes a similar neurological response to nicotine, but is 100 times more powerful. And when it is in the body of a person trying to quit using tobacco, it makes it that much harder for them to quit.
Synthetic nicotine also looks very similar to nicotine, but it is absorbed differently through the nose, so people trying to quit from nicotine have to stick with nicotine through inhalation or gum instead of through smoke.
So this leaves a huge potential market. One of the reasons companies are interested in getting a PPAC of their own is because they can simply keep building new plants to produce them, rather than be held to the standard of the ban in the US.
This puts them a step ahead of the US FDA, as it creates a potential market that they don’t have to focus on.
In part, this is all about technological advancement, as they can potentially switch to less toxic PPACs rather than just molecule after molecule of nicotine.
In part, it is about resistance to change. “We believe there are risks inherent in plant-derived products,” says a vape store owner in Ohio, who also goes by the name The Slow Joe. “If they are safe or toxic, consumers will stay away, especially those who already suffer from anxiety or anxiety-related disorders.”