Freebase nicotine

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Freebasing nicotine is a way to increase the potency of nicotine without increasing the dose. The term "freebasing" has been more commonly associated with cocaine addiction, where users, seeking a more intense effect from the drug, convert it from a salt to its base form. A salt is any chemical compound formed from the reaction of an acid (+ charge) with a base (- charge). By heating the cocaine with ether, or boiling it with sodium bicarbonate, users can freebase cocaine (or put it into a form that is more quickly and easily absorbed by the body). Addicts then inhale the smoke or residue from the heating or burning process.

Nicotine by itself would not be very potent in the body because nicotine is a base (made up of negatively-charged particles). This means it likes to absorb protons, or positively-charged particles. When nicotine molecules take on a positive charge, they become ions. An ion is any atom or molecule with a net electric charge obtained by giving off or receiving charged particles. Ions are less likely to vaporize and affect the body because they don't move across organic membranes very well. In order to turn nicotine into a more potent form that moves more quickly across human membranes, cigarette companies must turn nicotine into its de-protonated, or "freebase" form.

How tobacco companies freebase nicotine

To freebase nicotine, cigarette companies add ammonia, usually in the form of diammonium phosphate. The addition of ammonia, a base, de-protonates nicotine, making it cross through membranes in the body much more easily. This makes the drug more "bioavailable" to the lungs, brain and tissues. Because ammonia is also a base (negatively charged), it strips away protons from nicotine, turning it into "freebase" form. Scientists have collected the nicotine in cigarette smoke with filters, exposed it to ammonia, and measured how different concentrations of ammonia affect the ratios of protonated to "freebase" nicotine in cigarette smoke. Studies suggest that adding ammonia has a substantial effect on the amount of freebase nicotine contained in cigarette smoke.[1][2]

ABC News' 1994 "Day One" segment about nicotine spiking

In 1994, ABC broadcast a "Day One" segment about manipulation of nicotine levels in cigarettes. In the segment, ABC accused Philip Morris of "spiking" its cigarettes with nicotine. Philip Morris denied the charge, and subsequently filed a $10 billion libel lawsuit against ABC for what it considered "false and defamatory statements made on the network's ... broadcasts as well as on other ABC News programs." Philip Morris claimed it was "seeking redress for the harm caused by ABC's claim that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies are artificially 'spiking' cigarettes sold in the United States with extraneous nicotine." Philip Morris demanded an apology from ABC. [3][4]

What ABC did not know was that by freebasing nicotine, the company does not have to increase the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, but instead just chemicaly alters the nicotine already existing in the cigarette chemically to make it more volatile and easily absorbed in the body. It has been said that ABC was "on the right track, but the wrong train" with the segment. In the words of one PM email, ABC needed to explain "how PM has developed the world's favorite cigarette by coming up with the world's most sophisticated method of manipulating nicotine delivery."[5]

SourceWatch resources

External resources


  1. AAAS Science News Service Getting a Charge Out of Nicotine Magazine article. April 30, 1998. Bates No. 2063147272/7273
  2. Terrell Stevenson, BA, and Robert N. Proctor, PhD The SECRET and SOUL of Marlboro: Phillip Morris and the Origins, Spread, and Denial of Nicotine Freebasing American Journal of Public Health, July, 2008; 98(7): Pp. 1184–1194
  3. WI Campbell Untitled letter from William I. Campbell to ABC March 24, 1994. Bates No. 2022878317/8318
  4. Mark Landler, New York Times Philip Morris Revels in Rare ABC News Apology for Report on Nicotine News article. August 28, 1995
  5. M. York NBC Dateline Email. November 11, 1996. Bates No. 2065393224

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