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Liquid nicotine is a poison, so why is it being packaged like junk food?

Liquid nicotine is a poison, so why is it being packaged like junk food?


The appetizing packaging could put lives at risk

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Among the products that were called out by US regulators in a flurry of warning letters was something called Whip’d Strawberry, packaged in such a way that it looks like Reddi-wip topping. But it’s liquid nicotine — and if a hungry kid mistakenly squirted it into their mouth, they could face vomiting, seizures, and even death.

Elite Vaporworks and Cosmic Fog Vapors, two companies that sell the product, are among the recipients of 13 warning letters the US Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission sent today. The charge? The e-cig liquids look too appetizing, and it’s putting kids’ lives at risk.

Nicotine is poisonous because it mimics one of the chemical messengers that nerves use to communicate. Too much, and it can mess up signals like the ones tell your heart how fast to beat and your muscles to move, and can lead to vomiting, abdominal cramps, drooling, seizures, problems breathing, paralysis, and even death. The risk is real, says medical toxicologist Edward Boyer, an associate professor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “This is not new, it’s not hidden — it’s common, and it’s well described,” Boyer says. “This is by no stretch of the imagination a scare tactic.”

Photo: Food and Drug Administration

Adults don’t usually inhale enough nicotine by smoking to face immediate consequences (long term health problems are another story). But kids can be exposed to dangerous doses by eating tobacco products like cigarettes, cigarette butts, and e-cig liquids, the National Poison Control Center says. And if you’ve ever spent time with a kid, you know that most things that can fit in their mouths end up in there. So between January 2012 and April 2017, there were more than 7,600 calls to poison control centers because kids ate the stuff,  according to a study published this month in the journal Pediatrics.

It’s no wonder: the packaging can make liquid nicotine refills for e-cigarettes look delicious. The agency called out products like One Mad Hit Juice Box, which looks — surprise — like a juice box, and another — Twirly Pop — that not only looks like candy, but is also packaged with actual candy. That kind of marketing strategy is dangerous because, depending on the concentration, even less than a teaspoon could be fatal, according to the FTC’s blog.

The faster you get yourself or your kid to a doctor, the more likely a full recovery is, according the US National Library of Medicine. But children have died — like a little boy in Fort Plain, New York, who died in 2014 after swallowing liquid nicotine. “These are preventable accidents that have the potential to result in serious harm or even death,” FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement today.

If the companies that the FDA and FTC called out today don’t change their ways, they could face legal consequences and their products could be seized. In the meantime, the FTC’s blog has a few recommendations: make sure the containers for e-cig liquids are closed completely, and store them in child-proof cabinets.