By Jonathan Schroeder
A recent BYU study suggests that e-cigarette users may be getting more than they paid for – twenty times as much. The study, conducted last year by BYU Nursing graduate student Barrett Raymond and associate professor Dr. Katreena Merrill, found the nicotine content of some US produced e-cigarette solutions to be significantly higher than advertised. The study was among the first of its kind to focus on prominent U.S. e-cigarette manufacturers.
“Whenever you’re doing a study, you want it to have a big impact,” Raymond said of his thesis project. “I felt like focusing this study on prominent e-cigarette manufacturers was the best way to do that.”
Raymond’s interest in the e-cigarette industry partly stems from his brother, Daniel. Daniel was a veteran of the Iraq War who returned to the States with an addiction to tobacco cigarettes. Eventually, Daniel was introduced to e-cigarettes and within two months was tobacco free. Before long, Daniel quit his job as a deputy sheriff and started a successful e-cigarette shop in Idaho Falls.
“I remember visiting my brother’s shop and watching as they made the e-cigarette solutions,” Raymond descibes. “They would use measuring cups and kitchen utensils to mix the chemicals together – poly-ethylene glycome, vegetable glycerine, a flavoring component, and a nicotine component. The nicotine would originally come in super high concentrations (1000 mg/mL) and they’d mix all the chemicals together in a five-gallon bucket; following these little recipes that were hand-written down.”
“It just blew my mind that this was what they were selling to consumers. The math on the recipe made sense, but they had no idea if there was any residual nicotine left on the container or utensils they were using or if there were any other factors that could impact the final product.”
Raymond decided to conduct a study to see if the nicotine levels of e-cigarette solutions being sold actually matched what was listed on the labels. However, rather than focus on just a local cigarette shop in Idaho, Raymond focused his study on major U.S. e-cigarette manufacturers.
“I didn’t want to conduct a study that only applied to Utah or Idaho,” Raymond explains. “I wanted it to apply to the U.S., as a whole. The only way to really do that was to go online and look at major manufacturers.”
Raymond and Merrill identified the seven most popular US-based e-cigarette manufacturers using a Google search. They then purchased samples of the five most popular flavors from each manufacturer in nicotine concentrations of 0 and 18 mg/mL and tested them with the help of the BYU Chemistry and Nutrition departments to see if the nicotine content matched what was on the label. The results were pretty shocking.
“Of the thirty-five 18 mg/mL samples we tested, we found that most of them varied from 35 percent below the stated nicotine amount to 53 percent higher than the stated amount,” Raymond states. “To give you an idea, one of the manufacturers told us that the acceptable range of tolerance for nicotine levels is plus-or-minus 10 percent. Most of our findings fell outside of this range.”
However, the real surprise came in the results for the ‘nicotine-free’ samples. Of the thirty-five 0 mg/mL samples, almost all of them (91 percent) contained at least a trace amount of nicotine or more. Four samples of these samples contained more than 20 mg/mL of nicotine.
“What these results show is that adolescents who use e-cigarettes that are labeled ‘nicotine free’ could be constantly exposing themselves to small amounts of this addictive substance, without even realizing it,” Raymond adds. “What’s more is that their parents may unwillingly approve of their child’s e-cigarette use because they assume there’s no nicotine, when in reality that’s not always the case.”
This last finding could place Raymond’s study at the center of an ongoing national debate. A recent study by the National Institute of Health revealed that more than a third of high school seniors in the US had used an e-cigarette in 2017 – and that’s just among upperclassmen. In 2016, the US Surgeon General reported that the use of e-cigarettes among high school students had increased by 900 percent between 2011 and 2015. In light of this crisis, many officials in Congress and the Food and Drug Administration have started to push for greater oversight of the $4 billion e-cigarette industry.
Raymond says he hopes this study will prompt e-cigarette companies to step forward and make improvements, on their own—a call to action that some manufacturers have already answered. Not long after the study was published, one of the manufacturers reached out to Raymond, asking him to share the product code of the study samples so they could identify the problem.
“I appreciated that,” Raymond remarks. “This is the kind of impact you hope to have when you do a study like this.”
Raymond also had the opportunity to present his findings at a Tobacco Nicotine Research Symposium in Florence, Italy. There he had the chance to interact with other e-cigarette researchers from around the world.
“It was an awesome opportunity to meet with these experts and share ideas with them,” Raymond says. “I’m so grateful to Dr. Merrill and the BYU College of Nursing for making this experience possible.”
Raymond and Merrill’s study, “The Nicotine Content of a Sample of E-cigarette Liquid Manufactured in the United States” was recently published in the March/April 2018 edition of The Journal of Addiction Medicine.