Derek Yach: The Promise of Synthetic Nicotine

As consumer demand for healthier and more environmentally friendly alternatives to combustible cigarettes increases, we should expect greater focus on the benefits of this man-made alternative.

By Derek Yach

Tobacco-derived nicotine has been the sole source of nicotine used by pharmaceutical and tobacco companies until recently. The naming of the sector (tobacco sector), the naming of companies (British American Tobacco for example) and the framing of public health policies as tobacco control all show how pervasive and deeply embedded the word tobacco has become despite its scientific name being Nicotiana.

The dominance of tobacco plants started to wane when pharmaceutical companies developed nicotine-replacement therapies (NRTs) as cessation products. That highlighted the fact that while nicotine is addictive, it is not the source of death and disease caused by the products of combustion. The advent of a wide range of consumer-facing products that also use nicotine (especially e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches) to help smokers switch and/or quit has further increased the focus on nicotine.

Initially, there was no debate about the source of nicotine since it was assumed to come from the plant. In recent years, several companies have started using patented laboratory processes to develop nicotine from scratch. Many, like Zanoprima, use green chemistry to convert plant-based molecules into synthetic nicotine. Other companies, such as Contraf-Nicotex-Tobacco (CNT), begin with plant-based molecules used in cosmetics and derived from vitamin B.

Nicotine, like many molecules, exists in two orientations: S-nicotine and R-nicotine; however, nicotine that occurs naturally in the tobacco plant is entirely S-nicotine. Prior to the popularization of synthetic nicotine, this distinction had not been of great practical importance due to its naturally occurring form. Pharmaceutical-grade synthetic nicotine manufacturers such as CNT and Njoy therefore treat R-nicotine as a byproduct of the S-nicotine manufacturing process while Zanoprima’s patented process does not produce R-nicotine at all. Other manufacturers may use methods that may well not meet the high-quality standards of the pharmaceutical industry.

What Benefits Does It Bring to Consumers and the Environment?

Consumers increasingly demand information about the supply chain of end products. Leading food companies have led in being transparent about the source of all ingredients in their products with a shift toward those where labor conditions on the farm are known, addition of chemicals are reported, water and greenhouse gas use associated with products are made public and the traceability of food product ingredients is independently audited. Investors are more likely to invest in companies with sound records on these issues.

So it will be for all future nicotine products.

For many combustible users, the incentive to switch to a reduced-risk product usually starts with a desire to lower health risks. But for a considerable number, environmental issues are fast becoming reasons to switch, often independent of their health concerns. Again, this has its analogy in the food sector, where companies like Whole Foods have built their main value proposition on an environmental benefit, with health credentials being dubious.

The tobacco industry emits 84 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year, which is equivalent to 0.2 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to researchers at Imperial College London. Of the total, 20.87 million tons of CO2 come from cultivation, and 44.65 million tons of CO2 come from curing, together amounting to 78 percent of all tobacco industry emissions. Synthetic nicotine has the potential to virtually eliminate these.

Synthetic nicotine brings tangible benefits to consumers: A better sensorial experience, assurances about the absence of contaminants and a stamp of quality good enough for pharmaceutical companies, to name a few.

The recent World Health Organization report Tobacco: Poisoning Our Planet paints a vivid picture of the harms of tobacco farming, curing and processing for the environment. More recently, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World provided a qualitative summary of the potential sources of environmental harm associated with reduced-risk products. Both the WHO and the foundation advocate for the reduction in global tobacco farming, outlining the harms caused by tobacco growth and cultivation on arable land, workers’ rights and malnutrition. It is likely that products created with synthetic nicotine can mitigate many concerns in the product lifecycle. And as companies selling clean nicotine push harder to ensure their products are recyclable and/or reusable, the overall negative environmental footprint will decline further.

Where Is It Likely to Grow Fastest?

Today, synthetic nicotine is used in next-generation nicotine products by emerging nicotine pouch companies like NIIN and by mainstream vape companies like Njoy. This trend is set to continue and will gain traction as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouch companies seek medical licensing using synthetic nicotine.

One example is SMOOD, an up-and-coming next-generation e-cigarette and NRT company based in New York City. SMOOD creates its products as a comprehensive approach to address both health and environmental issues simultaneously. Synthetic nicotine, recyclable hardware and design features to support smokers to quit may well be a signal of what is to come. “We always used nontobacco nicotine due to the absence of minor tobacco alkaloids and metals, both of which are inherent in agricultural production,” says Martin Steinbauer, chief engineer of SMOOD. “Together with repeatable pharmaceutical production processes, nontobacco nicotine improves the toxicological safety of our devices and eliminates carbon emissions, water use and deforestation from tobacco growing. Most importantly, it offers a clean break of nicotine from tobacco finally.”

Snus and heated-tobacco products are unlikely to shift away from tobacco in the medium term but are lowering the health risks of the tobacco they use through processing changes in the case of snus and by eliminating combustion in the case of heated-tobacco products. For decades to come, tobacco plants will be used in these products as well as in combustibles like cigarettes and cigars where a significant demand from consumers is likely to remain even as overall demand declines.

Most major tobacco companies already support farmers to diversify. It will be interesting to watch the dynamic within companies with large and growing reduced-risk portfolios who will continue to sell combustibles even as they shift to reduced-risk products to a greater extent in later numbers for several decades. Altria’s purchase of Njoy, Philip Morris International’s acquisition of Swedish Match and BAT’s dominance in the U.S. vape space all signal that these companies will take a twin track approach to nicotine sourcing.

Who Makes It and How Do They See the Future?

CNT has stated that synthetic nicotine is currently a niche product with enormous potential. “We see enormous demand there and the capacity for the synthesis of chemical is unlimited.”

Zanoprima, the only company to use myosmine as the starting material believe that in time synthetic nicotine will become the main source of nicotine in pharmaceutical products as well as in products likely to be sold as both medically approved cessation products, and as recreational products for ex-smokers to use.

Isn’t It Expensive To Use?

No—prices have been dropping recently and will continue to do so as demand increases.

Conclusion

Health and environmental consumer demand combined with benefits in terms of quality and safety, suggest that synthetic nicotine is set to meet its potential in the coming years.

A global health expert and anti-smoking advocate for more than 30 years, Derek Yach is the owner of Global Health Strategies. Previously, Yach was the director of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and a World Health Organization cabinet director and executive director for noncommunicable diseases and mental health. He was deeply involved with the development of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

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