Friday, September 16, 2022

Nicotine and the Iron Law of Prohibition


I just read an interesting piece in Filter about the Iron Law of Prohibition, a theory described by Richard Cowan in a 1986 National Review article.  Referring to banned substances, he wrote: “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs will become.”  Cowan’s Law may very well apply to nicotine vaping products.

With millions of users around the world, e-cigarettes and vaping are here to stay.  The nicotine solutions in these products are satisfying in single puffs, and the vaping cartridges provide the equivalent of up to a few packs of cigarettes, depending on size.  They are not highly toxic when used as intended, but the liquid is dangerous if swallowed.  A tsunami of misinformation about vaping has prompted considerable discussion about the lethal dose of nicotine if swallowed.  The most common claims are based on old references and distorted facts.  For a review, please read the excellent summary by Bernd Mayer in Archives of Toxicology. 

The bulk of the chart at left, from the Filter article, shows the effects of prohibition on illegal drugs.  I’ve added nicotine to the chart, because legislation, regulation and litigation are pushing that addictive but otherwise mostly harmless drug towards prohibition.

It is possible that chemists might develop more potent nicotine analogues, but for now, the more likely path is more concentrated nicotine to make transport easier.  As restrictions tighten, pure liquid nicotine may fill the gap.

My research group used pure liquid nicotine as a control in 1994, when we were the first to publish nicotine levels in brand-name American smokeless tobacco products.  Pure nicotine is quite toxic, and at the time, there were strong warnings about inhalation, ingestion or skin contact.  One manufacturer’s material safety data sheet for 95% nicotine sends a clear warning: “Wear self-contained breathing apparatus, rubber boots, and heavy rubber gloves” for any spill.  “Use only in a chemical fume hood.”

Many readers might dismiss my cautionary words as not relevant for a drug that is now widely available in a fairly safe form, but look at the chart.  Prohibition creates illicit suppliers who must transport and deliver their products in more efficient ways.  If banned, nicotine may well invite the same unintended consequences seen with other banned drugs, including chaotic doses and contamination by dangerous fillers/additives, both of which can be toxic and/or fatal. 

Prohibition could morph today’s largely benign nicotine products into Frankenstein variants peddled by criminal elements. Consider what is happening with fentanyl, per the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “fentanyl…is 100 times stronger than morphine, and carfentanyl…is 100 times stronger than fentanyl. In addition, users have begun adding stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines to the mix.”

This may be our nicotine future. Beware of unintended consequences.


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