Politicians and the news media have fallen a step behind developments on e-cigarette regulation front. While they still focus on flavor bans, departing FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has identified prefilled nicotine salt pod systems, made famous by Juul, as the driving force behind the teen vaping epidemic.
In an interview with NPR, Gottlieb reiterated his shift away flavors and gas station sales. It will be interesting to see if this shift in focus will continue to be pursued. Will the FDA target the actual devices preferred by minors, or will they fixate on the sweet flavors preferred by adults.
“If we see the numbers of kids using these e-cigarettes go up again in 2019 in the National Youth Tobacco Survey, which we are in the field doing right now and we’ll have the results in July or August, if we see a big increase again year over year, like we saw last year, I think the FDA is going to have to contemplate whether they ban the pod based products as a category.”Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb
What You Need to Know About Nic Salts and Pods
Many veteran vapers have a firm understanding of the science behind nic salts and pod systems. But the subtle differences between vaping devices is not widely understood by vast swathes of the population. Sadly, many of the politicians and regulators who will be devising e-cigarette regulations are relatively ignorant of these differences. Below is a comprehensive breakdown of the differences between nic salts and regular (freebase) ejuices. We also look into what makes the Juul device a relatively unique innovation.
Juul Fueled By Nic Salts
There are structural design elements that set a prefilled pod system apart from second generation prefilled cartridge e-cigarettes, which have been available for the better part of the decade. But these differences are more evolutionary than revolutionary.
A prefilled cart ecig and prefilled pod system are more alike than different. Both use high resistance coils, and are used for mouth to lung vaping. They are supposed to mimic the act smoking, and the user experience is far removed from subohm box mods.
Rather than being refilled, the mouthpiece of a prefilled pod and classic e-cigarette serve as an e-liquid reservoir. When emptied of e-juice, they are simply swapped out. No spillage, no hassles and it is all self-contained. Stylistically, a classic e-cig may look like a combustible cigarette and a Juul like a USB drive, but in execution they are pretty similar.
The big difference between a classic cartridge e-cig and Juul's prefilled pod is the e-juice inside. Traditional e-liquids use freebase nicotine. Juul's prefilled pod system is fueled with nicotine salt ejuices, often referred to as nic salts.
The combination of pod and nic salt provides a totally different vaping experience. Even a prefilled cartridge system, roughly akin to a Juul device in technical specifications, that uses the most potent freebase ejuice available will pack less than half the nicotine punch of Juul’s original nic salt formula.
What makes nic salts ejuices so different than their freebase nicotine rivals?
The classic ejuice that has been around for years uses freebase nicotine. I hesitate to call this “regular ejuice”, because Juul has 70 plus present of the market. For their millions of users, it is nic salts that are “regular ejuice” and freebase nicotine ejuice that is different.
The name nic salt is derived from the molecular structure of nicotine. Nic salt may make you think Epsom or table salt, but “salt” actually refers to a compound formed when an acid reacts with a base.
The nicotine present in tobacco leaves is present in two forms: monoprotonated and diprotonated. For our purposes, this means that the nicotine has bonded with amino acids to create a more stable molecule. Acid bonded nicotine is a nicotine salt. There are actually several different types of nicotine salts, contingent on the type of acid involved.
Nicotine salts occur naturally in the tobacco leaf but they are not particularly bioavailable, which is a fancy way of saying easily absorbed. In the 1960s, Phillip Morris pioneered a chemical process that converted the naturally occurring nicotine salts in tobacco leaves into freebase nicotine. Using ammonia, Phillip Morris deprotonated these naturally occurring nicotine salts and the result was that the nicotine in cigarettes was now freebase, that is no longer bound to another molecule in the form of a salt.
“The ammonia (NH3) is thereby transformed into a cation (NH4+), and the positively charged nicotine acid salt is deprotonated to become neutral. This neutral, deprotonated nicotine is “free” in that it is no longer bound to another molecule (or anion) in the form of a salt.”
The resulting nicotine is freebase, which is a scary word in its own right. But it simply describes nicotine in its purest form, although it was selected by Phillip Morris because of its addictive properties.
Freebase nicotine absorbs more readily, but as revealed in industry documents from the 1970s, the process of removing the nicotine salts increased the pH level of freebase nicotine. This resulted in, “A greater physiological (throat and chest) impact and toxicity.” This high pH level is what limits the amount of nicotine you can put in a freebase nicotine e-liquid.
Despite this drawback, freebase nicotine is what is found in cigarettes and until recently all of the ejuices on the market. Compared to naturally occurring nicotine, the lower vaporization point and ease at which freebase crosses the blood brain barrier outweighed the drawbacks.
And if you vape using a subohm box mod, there are no drawbacks at all to freebase nicotine. Chances are, you are using a nicotine strength well below the level where the higher pH level starts to make itself known in the form of throat burn. Medium freebase nicotine strengths, up to 1.8 percent, also benefit because the throat burn adds authenticity to the experience.
Juul Turns Phillip Morris Nicotine Strategy Upside Down
Why all this talk about freebase nicotine and Phillip Morris? Because in 2015, Pax Labs (Juul) turned this strategy on its head.
Phillip Morris stripped away the naturally occurring nicotine salts in leaf tobacco with ammonia to create freebase nicotine. Juul has taken this nic salt free, freebase nicotine and added benzoic acid to create the modern nicotine salt ejuice.
Why would they do this?
According to their patent:
“It has been unexpectedly discovered herein that certain nicotine salt formulations provide satisfaction in an individual superior to that of freebase nicotine, and more comparable to the satisfaction in an individual smoking a traditional cigarette.”
The end result was that Juul could ratchet up the nicotine levels in their ejuice to levels unheard of in a freebase ejuice. The harshness caused by the higher pH level limits freebase eliquids to 1.8 to 2.4 percent nicotine. Juul’s original nic salt formula in the US has a nicotine level of 5 percent. Other nic salt manufacturers have pushed that level to 6 percent and above.
According to their patent for JuulSalts, not only is the nicotine level higher in benzoic acid nic salts but it crosses the blood brain barrier more readily. This makes the experience more like smoking an actual combustible cigarette.
In terms of appearance, nic salt ejuices resemble the standard freebase ejuices. The viscosity is dependent on the same blend of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin used in the formulation of freebase nicotine e-liquids.
Benzoic Acid Innovation
Naturally occurring nic salts were discarded by cigarette manufacturers a half century ago because they were less bioavailable, but the introduction of benzoic acid has proved to be a game changer.
PAX Labs, the precursor company for Juul found not all nic salts are the same and the acid used makes a huge difference. They found that unlike naturally occurring nic salts, freebase nicotine treated with benzoic acid has very useful properties for an e-cigarette manufacturer.
Benzoic Acid Provides Nic Salt E-juices Three Use Properties:
- Benzoic acid reduces the alkalinity in freebase nicotine. This allows manufacturers to increase the nicotine level in nic salts well beyond the point where a conventional ejuice would be intolerable to vapers.
- Benzoic acid nic salts cross the blood brain barrier more quickly than freebase nicotine. It allows the nicotine salt to vaporize at a lower temperature. This allows for a smoother throat hit.
- Nic salt ejuices can be vaped at a lower temperature as well. So cheaper and less powerful devices were back in the game again.
Reverse Engineering Nic Salts
In an article by The Verge, engineers for a rival company describe trying to reverse engineer Juul’s nic salt juice. They knew Juul had treated a freebase nicotine with acid to create nic salts, but it was a question of which one. The started with acetic acid, which is concentrated vinegar. “Here we are all excited going, ‘Oh, shit. Okay, acetic matches this. Maybe it is that obvious, it was very, very bad. Literally like inhaling vinegar.”
They continued to conduct experiments, combining different acids and nicotine. They were their own test subjects and it was obvious when they found the correct combination, “You felt it immediately through your veins.”
There are even DIY nic salt recipes online. We recommend leaving this to professionals, but the science is simple enough where home chemists have taken a shot at making their own nic salts by adding citric acid to freebase nicotine.
A classic e-cigarette with a prefilled cartridge and a Juul pod system share many of the same fundamentals. Both are small, use a sleek stick battery and rely on an easily affixed prefilled cartridge or pod that also serves as the mouthpiece. They do not use much power because of their high resistance coils, and therefore do not need a large battery.
What is inside of the e-juice resevoir is where the differences lie. Juul’s nic salts have far more nicotine. But from a sales perspective, they have another advantage: Juul uses silica wicking material instead of cotton.
The biggest advantage that silica has is its shelf life. Unlike the cotton wicks in prefilled cartridges, silica does not deteriorate as quickly. This is a huge advantage for a brick and mortar store. They do not have to worry about excess inventory and turning over the product as quickly to consumers.
Long before Altria purchased a stake in Juul and opened up the tobacco giants shelf space for Juul's best-selling pod system, this shelf life was a huge plus for store owners looking to carry a disposable e-cig.
Silica was widely used in the early days of vaping. A silicosis scare and the superior flavor provided by cotton put an end to that. But silica has properties which can enhance the user experience as well.
A Juul that has been on the shelf performs about as well as it did when new from the factory. It is not like cotton deteriorates immediately, but silica does have edge in longevity. This advantage cannot be understated, especially for beginners looking to transition from cigarettes but lacking the skill to properly prime and care for a more complex vaping device.
Silica also has a faster break-in time. Cotton wicking usually requires a number of puffs before it reaches optimum flavor. Silica is more consistent, even if the overall flavor can end up a bit more muted.
Silica also does not dry burn in the same way that cotton does. This means you can drain the pod of ejuice and not worrying about burning the coil. This makes the Juul easier for a beginner to use. The burnt taste of cotton is something that seasoned vapers try to avoid, and could conceivably chase off someone new to vaping universe.
Salt Nic E-Juices
Juul may have pioneered the use of nic salt pod systems, but there is plenty of competition now. Not only are there similar prefilled pod systems on the market, but now you can get a refillable nic salt pod system as well. Devices like the Smok Nord, Lost Vape Orion DNA Go and Aspire Spryte have swappable coils. They can be used with both freebase and nic salt ejuices.
Interestingly, Gottlieb spoke of banning pod systems rather than the nic salt juices that fuel them. Was this just shorthand for nicotine salts, or does he identify ease of use as the culprit?
Banning a class of e-cigs may lead to a flurry of lawsuits, but there is another issue worth considering. Gottlieb mentioned in passing that no pod manufacturer has submitted premarket tobacco authorization (PMTA). The confusing constellation of regulations and deeming rules explain why this is the case, and Juul would be one of, if not the only, company with the financial wherewithal to complete this process.
Provided they were successful, Juul could end up being the last pod standing, if the FDA decided to crack down. The reason they have not pursued this course is that the stakes are quite high. A device that failed PMTA would be pulled from the market, pending appeal. And with the headwinds faced by the e-cig industry, this would be a risky bet to place.
Nicotine Levels Not Flavors Driving Teen Epidemic?
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about Juul’s device. The big change was the use of nic salts. In the UK, nicotine levels are limited to 1.8 percent, or not much more than a third of a standard Juul’s nicotine level in the US.
At the same time, the UK has a much more liberal view on e-cigs and actively promotes them as an alternative smoking. Yet their teen vaping rate is far lower than in the US. The case can be made that it was never about the flavors, the thumb drive shape or social media influencers.
Could it be that nicotine addiction was the issue all along? It seems far-fetched. Maybe education and age verification can help. You know, the methods that cut teen smoking in the first place,