Analysis and differentiation of tobacco-derived and synthetic nicotine products: Addressing an urgent regulatory issue

PLoS One. 2022 Apr 14;17(4):e0267049. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0267049. eCollection 2022.


There is significant regulatory and economic need to distinguish analytically between tobacco-derived nicotine (TDN) and synthetic nicotine (SyN) in commercial products. Currently, commercial e-liquid and oral pouch products are available that contain tobacco-free nicotine, which could be either extracted from tobacco or synthesized. While tobacco products that contain TDN are regulated by FDA Center for Tobacco Products, those with SyN are currently not in the domain of any regulatory authority. This regulatory difference provides an economic incentive to use or claim the use of SyN to remain on the market without submitting a Premarket Tobacco Product Application. TDN is ~99.3% (S)-nicotine, whereas SyN can vary from racemic (50/50 (R)/(S)) to ≥ 99% (S)-nicotine, i.e., chemically identical to the tobacco-derived compound. Here we report efforts to distinguish between TDN and SyN in various samples by characterizing impurities, (R)/(S)-nicotine enantiomer ratio, (R)/(S)-nornicotine enantiomer ratio, and carbon-14 (14C) content. Only 14C analysis accurately and precisely differentiated TDN (100% 14C) from SyN (35-38% 14C) in all samples tested. 14C quantitation of nicotine samples by accelerator mass spectrometry is a reliable determinate of nicotine source and can be used to identify misbranded product labelled as containing SyN. This is the first report to distinguish natural, bio-based nicotine from synthetic, petroleum-based nicotine across a range of pure nicotine samples and commercial e-liquid products.

MeSH terms

  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • Nicotiana / chemistry
  • Nicotine* / analysis
  • Tobacco Products* / analysis
  • Tobacco Use


  • Carbon Radioisotopes
  • Nicotine

Grants and funding

The authors received no specific funding for this work.