Juul’s nicotine salts are dominating the market — and other companies want in

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Jomie Raymond was in an office in Los Angeles with a syringe, cracking open Juul pods and sucking out the juice to analyze it. It was early 2016, and Raymond and three other 20-somethings were starting a company called Solace Technologies to make flavored vape juice for refillable e-cigarettes. And they were bent on analyzing the recipe behind e-cigarette giant Juul’s meteoric success.

San Francisco-based vaping company Juul has been making headlines because of its recent $15 billion valuation and its alarming popularity with teens. Sales spiked 641 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, and that was just in brick-and-mortar stores. A recent Wells Fargo Securities analysis pegged Juul at controlling more than 70 percent of the estimated $6.6 billion e-cigarette market. But with increased success comes increased scrutiny from both addicted Juul users who are suing the company and from the Food and Drug Administration.

Just last week, Juul announced that it plans to stop supplying products in kid-friendly flavors to brick-and-mortar stores, and it pledged to go silent on social media in an effort to keep the popular vape’s appeal from spreading. On the heels of that announcement, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) released data showing a 78 percent increase in high school vaping and a 48 percent rise in middle schools. The agency issued its own plans to restrict the sales of kid-friendly flavored products to places that are only accessible to people over age 18.

Public health officials and worried parents aren’t the only ones watching Juul closely: the company’s competitors are, too, and some may be less scrupulous than others. Juul has filed a complaint against more than 15 companies that it alleges are infringing on its patent. That list doesn’t include Solace, which was first profiled by Inc. in May 2018. Even before Raymond started breaking open Juul pods to analyze the liquid inside, he dug through the company’s patent to try to avoid a legal wrestling match with the vaping giant. “If they’re doing something special, they’re a big enough company, they would have patented it,” he says.

Raymond’s patent sleuthing told him that Juul’s special sauce had something to do with its patented nicotine formulation, called JuulSalts, which are more generally known as nicotine salts. It’s the same version of nicotine that predominates in the smoke produced by most cigarettes, and it’s the reason that Juul hits like a cigarette instead of a cigar. The nicotine in nicotine salts is ionized, which means it carries a slight positive charge. That makes it less volatile and less harsh.

The form of nicotine more common in other vapes — as well as in cigars and pipe tobacco — is freebase nicotine, which can stick to a smoker’s upper respiratory tract and make them cough. Big Tobacco discovered decades ago that freebase nicotine makes puffing on a cigar much harsher than inhaling cigarette smoke. And that’s probably why salts products can afford to pack a bigger dose of nicotine, according to David Peyton, a chemistry professor at Portland State University. “You can have a less harsh vape than you can with freebase with the same nicotine content,” he says. “Combine that with the addiction that will follow with such a high dose of nicotine.”

Unlike the nicotine salts that are found in cigarettes, JuulSalts aren’t made by heat-drying tobacco leaves. Instead, Juul mixes freebase nicotine with an acid, setting off a chemical reaction that produces the salts. Juul uses benzoic acid, though their patent covers a wide range of other acids as well. Raymond and his three co-founders at Solace started with acetic acid, which is essentially concentrated vinegar. “Here we are all excited going, ‘Oh, shit. Okay, acetic matches this. Maybe it is that obvious,’” he says.

It wasn’t. “It was very, very bad,” Raymond says. “It was literally like inhaling vinegar.” Co-founder Brendan McDermott says they even tried mixing in straight-up vinegar from the grocery store. Both say the results were horrible. “It was awful. I’m not a vinegar fan to begin with, but I’ll never forget it,” McDermott says

Undeterred, the team continued their experiments, using themselves as test subjects. They mixed liquid nicotine — which is a poison — with different acids and inhaled. “We were mixing this stuff together, and we didn’t really know what it would do,” says McDermott, “I had this picture in my head like a Bill Nye experiment.”

When they found the right combination, Raymond and McDermott knew it from the moment they inhaled. “You felt it immediately through your veins,” McDermott says. But even when they found the right mix (they won’t say what it is), the salts didn’t take off immediately. “No one knew what we were talking about. Everybody thought we trying to sell them salt-flavored vape juice,” Raymond says.

Now, more than two years later, the company has outgrown that office in LA and moved to a factory in Simi Valley. They’re not the only small startup out there breaking into the nicotine salts space, but Raymond thinks that it will take bigger competitors to take on Juul. “Big Juul is kind of untouchable at this point, at least for now,” Raymond says. “They’re the size where their only competition is Big Tobacco.”

Big Tobacco is the old guard in the nicotine addiction market. The slightly acidic smoke produced by lighting up their most popular products, cigarettes, already contains nicotine salts. But these titans of industry are still small potatoes in the e-cigarette world, with their vapes consistently losing out to new-kid-on-the-block, Juul.

British American Tobacco (BAT), for example, is the parent company behind well-known cigarette brands like Camel and Pall Malls, as well as the Vuse line of vapes in the US (marketed in the US by Reynolds American). BAT’s vape products dominated e-cigarette sales from 2014 to late 2017 before being overtaken by Juul, according to a recent analysis from the CDC. But BAT started using nicotine salts before Juul made it big, spokesperson Joanne Walia tells The Verge in an email. “They’ve been incorporated in our Vuse e-liquid in the US since 2012,” she says. “So to be clear — not in response to Juul.”

Other companies are a little later to the game, like Philip Morris International (PMI), which sells Marlboro cigarettes overseas. Here, Marlboro is marketed by Philip Morris USA, a separate entity that’s owned by tobacco giant Altria. Even before the FDA’s announcement last week, Altria cut its supply of flavored vaping products to brick-and-mortar stores. But it continues to sell its MarkTen Bold Classic and Bold Menthol products, which “are the only MarkTen flavor variants that use nicotine salts,” according to an email from David Sutton, a spokesperson for the company.

Philip Morris International, on the other hand, doesn’t currently sell any products that contain nicotine in the US, according to Corey Henry, a spokesperson for the company. But it is hoping to enter the market soon. PMI is waiting for FDA authorization to sell a device called IQOS, which heats, rather than burns, short, densely packed cigarette-like cylinders of tobacco. PMI is also developing a nicotine salts vapor product called STEEM — known internally as Platform 3 — Philip Morris International’s CEO André Calantzopoulos tells The Verge in an interview.

While smaller companies like Solace are focused on their competition’s chemistry, Calantzopoulos isn’t worried about Juul’s patent. “There is no particular know-how or patent around Juul,” he says. He’d argue that Juul’s advantage isn’t necessarily the salts; it’s the brand. “Juul was the first real ‘brand’ in the e-cigarette market. But I don’t think Juul has any technological or innovation advantage,” he says. “You can create a nicotine salt in 50 different ways — just putting an acid with nicotine, it creates a salt.”

But Juul’s successful brand has come under fire. Growing pressure from the FDA and Juul’s recent decision to cut the supply of its fruity- and dessert-flavored pods to brick-and-mortar stores could help clear the way for its competitors. That’s what James Campbell, a spokesperson for Fontem Ventures, which markets Blu e-cigs, told The Verge in an email earlier this month when rumors of the FDA’s plans were reported. “We will come out of this as competitive or more competitive than before.”

Fontem Ventures is a subsidiary of tobacco company Imperial Brands, PLC, and it’s behind the Blu and myBlu e-cigarettes. Unlike the original myBlu flavor pod range, which used freebase nicotine, the myBlu Intense flavor pods contain nicotine salts that are created by combining freebase nicotine with lactic acid. The theory, O’Connell says, is that nicotine salts are able to travel more deeply into the lung than the freebase, where the nicotine is absorbed faster. With typical freebase vape juice, he says, “When you activate your e-cigarette and you’re inhaling that aerosol, what you find in your mouth is that the freebase evaporates off the aerosol droplets.”

That means, according to O’Connell, that freebase e-liquid delivers less nicotine to the lungs and more nicotine to the upper respiratory tract where it’s absorbed into the body at a slower rate. That slower absorption doesn’t deliver the same kick as a cigarette, which makes these products less appealing to smokers than the ones that use nicotine salts. With those, he says, “we can more closely replicate a cigarette-like nicotine delivery.”

Fontem, Juul, and their competitors all say they want to get as close to a cigarette experience as possible in order to appeal to smokers. “Like many Silicon Valley technology startups, our growth is the result of a superior product disrupting an archaic industry,” Victoria Davis, a spokesperson for Juul, told The Verge in an email, echoing previous statements. “When adult smokers find an effective alternative to cigarettes, they tell other adult smokers.”

But we’ve seen before how appeal can run straight into addiction when we’re talking about products that contain nicotine. That addiction can be distressing: Juul users across the country have sued the company, alleging that the vapes got them hooked. We don’t know yet whether nicotine salts are substantially more or less addictive than the freebase form of nicotine. We’re still waiting for rigorous independent studies to weigh in, and we could be waiting for a while. The most convincing version of those studies would require that people who don’t use nicotine try various products to see who gets addicted, says Portland State’s Peyton. “Boy, it could be tricky to get review board approval to do that study.”

On the other hand, vapes are considered less risky than cigarettes for adult smokers — although there’s still a lot to learn about these largely unregulated products. That includes whether they truly help people quit smoking, and, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the jury’s still out on that. The truth is, we just don’t know yet.

It’s a double-edged sword that the FDA is being forced to reckon with in light of the evidence that kids are vaping in record numbers. They want adults to quit smoking, but they don’t want children to start using nicotine, and these products have the potential to do both. The agency’s new restrictions on flavored products will cut into Juul’s bottom line, but whether it will level the playing field for its competitors remains to be seen. Any way you slice the e-cigarette market pie, salts are making e-cigarettes feel more like the conventional kind — for better or for worse.