Synthetic nicotine could be considered a component of e-cigarettes, which would allow for the product to be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said the agency was concerned about the use of synthetic nicotine to avoid regulation and enforcement and is considering its options in dealing with its use.
On Nov. 17, the first day of TMA’s “From Chance to Change” webinar, Zeller said that the agency is charged with regulating tobacco products, which according to the Tobacco Control Act is anything that’s “made or derived from tobacco that is intended for human consumption, including any component, part or accessory of a tobacco product.” Zeller said that components and parts could include everything from coils and batteries to all the ingredients comprised in producing e-liquids (such as flavorings and vegetable glycerin) even if the product does not contain nicotine.
“That’s an assessment that we need to make on a case-by-case basis based upon the totality of all the information that we have,” said Zeller, adding that another challenge is that synthetic nicotine is now of such high quality and complexity that it has become difficult to differentiate it from nicotine derived from natural tobacco. “Historically, that hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “It’s not a problem now, but it could become a challenge for us going forward.”
Zeller explained that nicotine is comprised of two isomers: R and S. Tobacco-derived nicotine is 99 percent S, and early synthetic nicotine had a 50-50 split between R isomers and S isomers. However, newer versions of synthetic nicotine have much higher proportions of S isomers (as high as 99.9 percent pure), making it harder to tell synthetic apart from natural nicotine. Tobacco-derived nicotine is also becoming higher in quality.
“Tobacco-derived nicotine is now being made available at a higher quality … pharmaceutical grade from a purity standpoint. And with that, it may be harder for us to see that chemical fingerprint, if you will, whether it’s tobacco DNA or tobacco-specific nitrosamines,” he said. “We could see this as a problem going forward. Coupled with the clear intent of certain companies to do this to evade FDA regulation … We are concerned about what this means for product regulation, for the public health, and a product like Puff Bar proudly proclaiming its use of synthetic nicotine, [and] being the number-one brand used by youth.”
In the short term, Zeller said the FDA is talking internally about how to best address the growing number of products that are using synthetic nicotine to skirt FDA regulation. He said the agency is also responding to questions from Congress about synthetic nicotine and providing technical assistance to members when asked.
“There are a lot of companies out there that pride themselves on playing by the rules. They have every right to expect that the playing field is going to be level. That’s where we come in with our compliance and enforcement authorities,” Zeller said. “We agree that one of the most important things that we can do, using our compliance and enforcement tools, is to level the playing field and to have our actions [in the e-cigarette space], hopefully, serve as a deterrent. There’s nothing that I can say from a compliance enforcement standpoint on synthetic nicotine other than we have ongoing investigations.”
For more on Zeller’s speech at TMA read the next issue of Vapor Voice coming in mid-December.