Nicotine is a chemical in tobacco leaves and is a component of the liquid in e-cigarettes. Nicotine does not, however, cause cancer.
What is nicotine? Is nicotine a carcinogen?
An addictive substance, nicotine produces a pleasurable, relaxed feeling when inhaled in smoke or vapor or when ingested from chewing tobacco. It is one of thousands of chemicals in tobacco. Dozens of these chemicals, particularly tar, which gives cigarettes and chewing tobacco their flavor, are known carcinogens.
The nicotine in e-cigarette liquid is extracted from tobacco and mixed with a liquid base so it can be vaporized when heated. Because e-cigarettes deliver nicotine without the tar and many of the other cancer-linked chemicals found in tobacco, they’re thought to pose less of a cancer risk than traditional cigarettes.
This does not mean that nicotine is completely safe. The U.S. Surgeon General has found that nicotine exposure during pregnancy can harm the fetus and have lasting consequences for brain and lung function in newborns, according to the American Lung Association. Nicotine also has a negative impact on brain development in adolescents, according to the Surgeon General.
Do e-cigarettes cause cancer?
Low levels of some cancer-associated chemicals have been detected in various brands of e-cigarettes and e-cigarette liquid cartridges. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration detected cancer-causing chemicals, including one used in anti-freeze, in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 types of cartridges. A 2014 study found that aerosol from e-cigarettes with a higher voltage level contains more of the carcinogen formaldehyde, the American Lung Association reports.
One particular brand of e-cigarette, called the JUUL, has become very popular with teenagers and young adults. Like most e-cigarettes, the e-liquid in the JUUL contains nicotine, though according to the American Cancer Society, the JUUL in particular has a significantly higher amount of nicotine per puff than most other products. In June, 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered JUUL to stop selling all of its products in the U.S.