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Home > Effect of exposure to e-cigarettes with salt vs free-base nicotine on the appeal and sensory experience of vaping: a randomized clinical trial

Leventhal, Adam M and Madden, Danielle R and Peraza, Natalia and Schiff, Sara J and Lebovitz, Lucas and Whitted, Lauren and Barrington-Trimis, Jessica and Mason, Tyler B and Anderson, Marissa K and Tackett, Alayna P (2021) Effect of exposure to e-cigarettes with salt vs free-base nicotine on the appeal and sensory experience of vaping: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Network Open , 4 , (1) , e2032757. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.32757.


Importance: Alkaline free-base nicotine is bitter and a respiratory irritant. High-nicotine electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) products contain acid additives that change nicotine from a free-base to a protonated salt chemical form, which could improve the sensory experience of vaping, particularly among never smokers unaccustomed to inhaling free-base nicotine.

Objective: To determine whether exposure to e-cigarettes with salt vs free-base nicotine formulations improves the appeal and sensory experience of vaping e-cigarettes and whether nicotine formulation effects differ by e-cigarette flavor and ever combustible cigarette smoking status.

Design, Setting, and Participants: Single-visit double-blind within-participant randomized clinical trial was conducted in an academic medical center outpatient clinical research facility in Southern California. Participants were 119 individuals with past 30-day e-cigarette or combustible cigarette use aged 21 years or older recruited from November 2019 to March 2020.

Interventions: Participants self-administered standardized puffs of each 10 differently flavored e-cigarette solutions using a pod-style device. Each flavor was administered in salt (benzoic acid added) and free-base (no benzoic acid) nicotine formulations with commensurate nicotine concentrations (mean, 23.6 mg/mL). The 20 solutions were administered in randomly assigned sequences. Immediately after puffing each solution, participants rated appeal and sensory attributes.

Main Outcomes and Measures: Self-reported appeal (mean of like, dislike [reverse-scored], and willingness to use again ratings) and 4 sensory attributes (sweetness, smoothness, bitterness, and harshness; analyzed individually) on visual analog scales with not at all and extremely anchors (range, 0-100).

Results: Of the 119 participants; 39 (32.8%) were female. The mean (SD) age was 42.1 (14.4) years; 105 (88.2%) were ever combustible cigarette smokers, and 66 (55.5%) were current e-cigarette users. Salt vs free-base nicotine formulations produced higher ratings of appeal (salt vs free-base mean difference effect estimate: b = 12.0; 95% CI, 9.9-14.1; P < .001), sweetness (b = 9.3; 95% CI, 7.1-11.4; P < .001), and smoothness (b = 17.4; 95% CI, 15.2-19.6; P < .001) and lower ratings of bitterness (b = -13.3; 95% CI, -15.4 to -11.2; P < .001) and harshness (b = -21.0; 95% CI, -23.2 to -18.7; P < .001). Nicotine formulation effects largely generalized across different flavors and the smoothness-enhancing and harshness-reducing effects of nicotine salt were stronger in never vs ever cigarette smokers.

Conclusions and Relevance: In this randomized clinical trial of adult current nicotine or tobacco product users, controlled exposure to e-cigarette puffs with salt vs free-base nicotine formulations appeared to increase product appeal and improve the sensory experience of vaping, particularly among never smokers. Regulatory policies limiting acid additives in e-cigarettes might reduce the appeal of high-nicotine e-cigarettes among populations deterred from vaping e-cigarettes that emit harsh aerosol.

Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Tobacco / Nicotine
Intervention Type
Harm reduction
4 January 2021
Identification #
doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.32757
Page Range

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