Tobacco and Nicotine
In recent years, some bars have been serving cocktails containing tobacco infused into syrups, bitters, and base spirits. In the United States this is not legal. More importantly, tobacco ingested via drinking delivers far more nicotine compared with smoking, and even small quantities infused into alcohol can have large health impacts. There have been several reported incidents of consumers and bartenders becoming ill after drinking very small quantities of tobacco-infused products.
Nicotine poisoning can be deadly.
The FDA regulates all tobacco products in the United States. [link] Information from the FDA:
- "If you sell tobacco products, you must comply with all applicable federal laws and regulations for retailers."
- "Do NOT give away free samples of tobacco products to consumers, including any of their components or parts"
- "Do NOT break open packages of cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, or roll-your-own tobacco to sell products in smaller amounts."
- "Do NOT give away free samples of cigars to consumers, including any of their components or parts."
- "Do NOT give away free samples of hookah or pipe tobacco to consumers, including any of their components or parts."
This guidance indicates that you cannot sell tobacco without a license, and if you have a license as some bars do, you still cannot sell or give away "components or parts" of a pack of cigarettes or bag of tobacco. In other words, it is not permitted to sell or give away tobacco infused cocktail ingredients. A document from the FDA that lists recommendations, "The Prohibition of Distributing Free Samples of Tobacco Products" can be found here [link as PDF].
In Canada, the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act seems to echo the same rule that tobacco can only be sold in labelled packages. "No person shall import for sale in Canada, package, distribute or sell a tobacco product — other than cigarettes, little cigars or blunt wraps — that is prescribed for the purposes of this subsection, except in a package that contains at least the prescribed portions, number or quantity of the tobacco product." [link]
Health and Safety Issues:
The average cigarette contains somewhere between 8 and 20 mg of nicotine [link], sometimes higher [link]. By smoking a cigarette, the intake of nicotine is much smaller (1.04 mg according to this study) than the total amount of nicotine, but "Tobacco products that are chewed, placed inside the mouth, or snorted tend to release considerably larger amounts of nicotine into the body than smoking." [link]
Compared to smoking, up to 20 times more nicotine is made bioavailable when extracting it into alcohol. Thus, for every cigarette’s worth of tobacco used in an extract, it can be the equivalent of smoking up to a pack’s worth of the same tobacco.
According to Medical News Today [link], When humans consume nicotine, "it increases their heart rate, heart muscle oxygen consumption rate, and heart stroke volume."
The lethal dose of nicotine may be as low as 60mg (the amount in 3 strong cigarettes) or as high as 500+ml [link], but drinkers have reported feeling effects - dizziness and heart palpitations- from only very small amounts (drops and dashes) of tobacco-infused alcohol.
Fresh Tobacco Leaves
Some bartenders have inquired about using fresh tobacco leaves as garnish in cocktails. We reiterate that we are neither lawyers nor medical professionals here at CocktailSafe, but our understanding of the law is that adding fresh tobacco leaves to a drink for sale is neither legal nor safe, because tobacco leaves appear to meet the definition of "tobacco products," which requires a license to sell/give away (as above), and the leaves can impart nicotine to a drink when wet. Some information that informs our opinion:
- The FDA issued a notice to a (dried) tobacco leaf reseller stating, "these products are tobacco products because they are made or derived from tobacco and intended for human consumption." [link]
- California defines tobacco products "as defined under section 22950.5(d)(1) of the Business and Professions Code, include... Any product containing, made, or derived from tobacco that is intended for human consumption. [link to PDF]
- Smokeless tobacco products must have warning labels on them [link]
- Wet tobacco leaves do "leak" nicotine so they could impact drinkers. In commercial tobacco harvesting there is a condition called "green tobacco sickness" [link]. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states:
"Nicotine is a hazard present in workplaces that require workers to handle tobacco leaves. Nicotine is a chemical that is able to pass through the skin and enter the bloodstream causing GTS, a form of nicotine poisoning. Nicotine absorption is more likely when it dissolves into rainwater, dew and sweat. GTS symptoms include nausea and vomiting. Additional symptoms include dizziness, headaches and cramps. Symptoms might not occur for several hours after nicotine overexposure."
Commercial Products - Tobacco Liqueurs and Bitters
There is at least one tobacco liqueur on the market, Perique, though it is not for sale in the United States as it was not approved by the US government. The manufacturer of this product uses distillation techniques to eliminate nicotine and has it tested before shipment. [link]
There are also commercially-available brands of bitters that are labelled as tobacco bitters that do not contain any tobacco. These are typically flavored with tea.
Some bartenders have inquired about "nicotine-free tobacco" and searches result in some scientific studies on plant development, but we have not yet identified commercial products meant to taste like tobacco that could be used safely in drinks; only herbal cigarettes and the like.
Alternatives to Tobacco in Cocktails:
To imitate the flavor of tobacco without the nicotine, some alternatives are:
- Lapsang souchong tea
- Smoky ingredients such as Islay scotch whisky or mezcal
- Tobacco-flavored bitters
Using the Word "Tobacco" on Cocktail Menus:
Some bars are using the word "tobacco" on drink menus when they are merely using tobacco-flavored ingredients. While it is commendable that these bars avoid real tobacco in their drink programs, by using the word "tobacco" on a menu it may inspire other bartenders or consumers to replicate these cocktails using real tobacco.
For customer safety reasons, it is recommended that tobacco-flavored cocktail ingredients be clearly labelled in a way that makes clear there is no actual tobacco in them. Safer ways of labelling these drinks to indicate that they do not contain actual tobacco include calling them:
imitation tobacco bitters/syrup
a stylized name such as "faux-bacco"
or including a disclaimer that the drink does not contain actual tobacco
Iff there is ever any concern that someone may think that the drink contains actual tobacco, a disclaimer that the drink does not contain actual tobacco should be explicitly made.
Further Reading and References:
"Tobacco Cocktails", ArtOfDrink.com
"Dangerous Drinks and How to Spot Them," Imbibe Magazine
"Why Tobacco Cocktails are a Terrible Idea, Imbibe Magazine