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What is “tobacco-free” nicotine?

Some nicotine-containing products in sweet and fruity flavors -- e-cigarettes, pouches, lozenges, and even gummies -- are marketed as containing “tobacco-free nicotine.” These flavored products, which have yet to face significant regulation, are prompting concerns about youth use and causing confusion.

What even is “tobacco-free” nicotine?

What is tobacco free nicotine?

Manufacturers use the term “tobacco-free” or “tobacco-leaf free” nicotine to describe products that contain nicotine that is either created in a lab (synthetic nicotine) or extracted from tobacco, but don’t contain any tobacco leaf. Synthetic brands advertising themselves as “tobacco free” include top disposable e-cigarette Puff Bar and pouches Rush and Bidi Pouch. Products that are promoted as tobacco-leaf free or “extracted from tobacco” include oral nicotine brands Velo, on!, Rogue, Zyn, and Lucy.

Nicotine, regardless of the source, is dangerous for young people. Nicotine is harmful to developing brains and its use during adolescence can disrupt the formation of brain circuits that control attention, learning, and susceptibility to addiction. Research has also shown that nicotine can worsen anxiety symptoms and amplify feelings of depression.

Rising popularity of “tobacco-free” nicotine

what is tobacco leaf free nicotine

Products containing “tobacco-free” nicotine, whether synthetic or tobacco-derived, are growing in popularity among young people. As some types of flavored e-cigarettes have faced greater restrictions in response to the youth vaping epidemic, other types of flavored nicotine products have proliferated.

2022 paper from Stanford University identified six manufacturers of synthetic nicotine and 98 brands claiming to contain synthetic nicotine. It also found that underage sales of “tobacco-free” nicotine products are common via major online stores. Arecent peer-reviewed survey of more than 3,500 high school students in Southern California found that flavored chewing gum, lozenges, gummies and other oral products that contain nicotine but not tobacco were the second most popular nicotine items among adolescents, after e-cigarettes.

“Tobacco-free” claims can be misleading

Is tobacco free nicotine safe

The term “tobacco-free” nicotine can be misleading to consumers since it can imply that products are less harmful. One survey published in PLOS ONE showed that many young adults incorrectly interpreted the term  “tobacco-free” nicotine, with some even believing that nicotine was not present. A recent Truth Initiative analysis of direct mail advertisements for oral nicotine products found they are frequently marketed as tobacco-free alternatives to smoking, claims that could imply lower-risk.

So far, the Food and Drug Administration has taken only incremental steps to regulate these products. In March 2022, Congress passed a bipartisan law enabling the agency to regulate synthetic nicotine products as tobacco products. The legislation required manufacturers to submit their products for FDA review, and required all synthetic nicotine products off the market by July 12, 2022. These products were only supposed to be allowed back on the market should FDA grant a marketing order. However, FDA has issued only two warning letters to synthetic nicotine product manufacturers that did not even bother to submit applications to stay on the market. The FDA also issued a warning letter in August to a manufacturer of flavored nicotine gummies, the first warning letter for this type of product.

Truth Initiative strongly urges the FDA to remove all unauthorized products from the market that have not been authorized for sale. In order to prevent youth from using these products, eliminating all flavors, including menthol, from all tobacco products is crucial, as well as instituting marketing restrictions on these products to prevent youth exposure to them.