It is believed that the nicotine for electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, comes from China, India and maybe Eastern Europe. “Why can't American growers produce it here?” said Rod Kuegel, a burley and dark tobacco grower from Owensboro, KY.

E-cigs are battery-powered devices that vaporize liquid nicotine solutions to simulate the experience of a conventional cigarette without the smoke. Kuegel said meetings and negotiations are going on this spring to see if this market could be developed, and he is sure that an experimental batch of liquid nicotine will be produced somewhere in the burley belt this year.

“We have the best controls on pesticide residues that exist in tobacco. If electronic cigarettes are supposed to be healthier, how can they use nicotine from tobacco that doesn't measure up to ours?" he said. "This product should be produced in the U.S.”

He is not sure how liquid nicotine would be produced, but whatever the method, it is not likely to be too difficult for Americans to adopt.

On-farm nicotine processing

And processing the raw product to liquid could be done on the farm. “All the equipment needed to process the tobacco could fit into a semi-trailer and be carried from farm to farm,” said Kuegel, who is president of the Council for Burley Tobacco.

Liquid nicotine for e-cigs is being derived from tobacco, at least for now, said North Carolina Extension economist Blake Brown. It is usually dissolved in a solution of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin or polyethylene glycol. Synthetic nicotine, on the other hand, is not likely to compete with tobacco-based nicotine anytime soon.

“It is currently expensive to manufacture and, in the U.S., would be regulated as a pharmaceutical instead of a tobacco product,” said Brown.

Change may be dramatic, but it is difficult to forecast, said Brown, who noted that Wells Fargo has projected that e-cigs will overtake traditional cigarettes in volume sold by 2023.

“The technology and characteristics of the market may change dramatically,” he said. “Many companies are in the start-up phase, but consolidation will occur. There will be a few winners and many losers.”