While e-cigarette advocates have been fighting to save e-cigarette flavors as an option for adult smokers and vapers, the Big Tobacco companies have been quiet. There may be a good reason Big Tobacco is not actively opposing e-cigarette flavor bans. That reason being nicotine. While the prevailing sentiment is that flavors attract teens, a deeper analysis reveals that there may be something else going on with youth experimentation with e-cigarettes.
Prior to 2017, teen use of e-cigarettes had leveled off and was hovering at about 11%. At that time, e-cig flavors were just as prevalent as they are now. And yet from 2017 to 2019, there was a massive increase in underage experimentation with vapor products. In fact, by 2019, 28% of teens reported using an e-cigarette within the last 30-days. So why did underage use suddenly increase? What changed? The answer is salt nicotine.
In the last two years, 50mg to 65mg salt nicotine devices have exploded in popularity. Particularly small high-nicotine pod-style e-cigs that look like USB memory sticks. The devices can now be found in almost every c-store and gas station across America. Prior to the advent of 50mg and higher salt nicotine, the highest nicotine sold was 24mg.
Freebase nicotine is extracted from tobacco plants in pharmaceutical lab facilities. The process was invented by Phillip Morris in the 1950s and derives pure nicotine from tobacco leaves. Freebase nicotine is used in nicotine replacement therapies such as nicotine gum and the patch. Freebase nicotine is also used in most e-cigarette liquids. Or at least it was until salt nicotine began to claim a large share of the e-cigarette market in the last two years.
Salt nicotine is made by adding benzoic acid to freebase nicotine. The benzoic acid converts the nicotine into a salt. By converting nicotine into a salt, it becomes much easier to ingest. Inhaling 50mg of freebase nicotine would cause irritation and coughing. On the other hand, inhaling 50mg of salt nicotine does not cause harshness or coughing. As a result, massive amounts of nicotine can be ingested easily and without conscious awareness of how much nicotine is being ingested.
The much higher nicotine content mainlines nicotine absorption. The 50mg nicotine devices cause an instant buzz. Even long-term smokers report experiencing a strong nicotine buzz with 50mg salt nicotine products. An underage youth that has never smoked is going to experience a very strong nicotine rush with a spiked 50mg salt nicotine device.
Reviewing the facts, it is evident that the wide-spread growth and distribution of salt nicotine devices correspond precisely with an almost 300% increase in underage use. Add to that equation that 50mg and higher salt nicotine is known to cause an instant buzz or nicotine rush. It then stands to reason that it is the nicotine that attracts underage users. Not flavors.
How To Combat Teen Vaping
In order to combat teen vaping the dramatic increase in nicotine content must be addressed. In Europe and Israel, regulations limit e-cig nicotine content to 20mg. It would make sense for the United States to follow a similar model. A limit of a 24mg nicotine level would be a sensible place to start. The 50mg nicotine level may be useful for heavy smokers, but the fact that it has spread like wildfire among teens urges us to take steps to limit the nicotine content of e-cigs.
A nationwide Age 21 limit to purchase any tobacco or vapor product needs to be implemented. According to the Mig Vapor (formerly known as Mig Cigs) online vape shop, online age verification is the most secure method of establishing age validity. Online age verification uses multiple layers of evaluation to verify age. A fake ID that could fool a shop clerk would not fool age verification technology. The bottom line is that the technology exists to properly verify the legal age to purchase.
Another reason that the US market is flooded with 50mg-70mg salt nicotine pods is the massive influx of counterfeit and copy-cat products from China. These can be stopped at the borders and ports of entry. Allow only registered American companies to import vapor products.
These are just three steps that might immediately curtail the trends in youth vaping experimentation. Other than a cursory glance at survey data, it is extremely difficult to blame flavors for the increase in youth vaping. The evidence points to nicotine. Moreover, a flavor ban could cause adult vapers to revert to smoking cigarettes.
The FDA collected information from 70,000 vapers who indicated that flavors are crucial to refrain from traditional cigarettes. There are two very clear goals here. First, we cannot ignore the fact that smoking kills 480,000 Americans every year. Adult smokers deserve access to the vapor products that work for them. Second, we must protect children from a lifetime of nicotine addiction. Those two goals do not necessarily counter each other. By targeting the real cause of the surge in underage use, it can be possible to provide an alternative for adult smokers and protect kids at the same time.
Why Big Tobacco Is Not Fighting For Flavors
Big Tobacco sells salt-nicotine vape devices in gas stations and c-stores. The Big Tobacco e-cigs brands are retail products. They are found in stores right next to the cigarettes. There are only a few flavors. JUUL has already pulled all of its flavors except for two tobacco flavors and menthol. The Big Tobacco companies do not rely on flavors. It is arguable that they rely on maximizing nicotine content.
Those pushing for a ban on e-cig flavors miss the irony that a ban on flavors will wipe out almost every e-cig device except for the high nicotine Big Tobacco e-cigs sold in gas stations and c-stores. In other words, a ban on e-cigarette flavors would hand Big Tobacco the entire e-vapor market.