The Synthetic Nicotine Loophole Fueling a Return to Teenage Vaping

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“This country should learn some lessons from past prohibitions that failed miserably,” Mr. Conley said. “If you don’t fairly regulate a market where there is a great deal of demand from legal adults, you will fuel gray and black markets where the operators are not concerned with checking IDs before selling.”

Dr. Robert Jackler, who studies tobacco company advertising at Stanford University, has also noted major tobacco retailers entering the synthetic nicotine market with flavored gums called “pouches.” He said his tobacco research group could pose as a teenager and use gift cards to easily buy the flavored synthetic nicotine gums from major retailers and have them shipped to a home in California.

“When we buy them, there’s no age gating,” Dr. Jackler said.

The loopholes are many with synthetic nicotine, he said, allowing the products to avoid hefty tobacco taxes and remain affordable and to evade the algorithms that online retailers use to weed out underage sales of tobacco products. The ease of purchasing was also concerning, Dr. Jackler said, given how little is known about the health effects of flavored, synthetic nicotine.

Recent research has focused in on the chemicals used to simulate butter, which is linked to lung damage, and vanilla, which is associated with birth defects in zebrafish.

Dr. Sven-Eric Jordt, an associate professor at Duke University who has studied synthetic nicotine, said it posed many unknowns.

About 99 percent of tobacco-derived nicotine is a psychoactive molecule called S-nicotine, he said. But a mirror-image molecule, known as R-nicotine, makes up 50 percent of most types of synthetic nicotine. He said the R-nicotine molecule appears to be less addictive, but very little research has been done on it in animals or humans.

“It could alter nerve transmission in the brain in different ways from classic nicotine,” Dr. Jordt said, “but we don’t understand that at this time.”

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