Cigarettes, E-Cigarettes and Characterizing Flavors
One of the most hotly-debated aspects of e-cigarettes is the multitude of flavors they’re available in. You see countless news stories discussing the implications of e-liquid flavors, in particular, looking at the idea that such flavors will attract teens and youth to vaping, hook them into lifelong nicotine addiction and ultimately lead to them taking up smoking.
With the FDA’s draft deeming regulation of e-cigarettes having been released, vaping products are on the cusp of falling under federal regulations, with the final rule due in June this year. The initial draft didn’t propose any limitation on flavors, but it did request further evidence on them – a move which many saw as looking for justifications for further action. So with that in mind, what does the future hold for e-cigarette flavors? Why the hostility towards something so mundane? Vaping isn’t smoking, but the answers ultimately lie in past discussions of characterizing flavors in cigarettes.
Characterizing Flavors in Cigarettes
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act established a rule for cigarettes, valid from late September 2009, banning the use of characterizing flavors in cigarettes or their components (including the tobacco, the filters and the paper). Characterizing flavors means any artificial or natural flavor other than tobacco or menthol, including many flavors currently used in e-liquids, like vanilla, chocolate, cherry, cinnamon and basically any e-liquid flavor you care to think of.
This rule is for cigarettes, and the lack of a broad reference to all “tobacco products” (which e-cigarettes are being “deemed” as in the FDA’s proposed regulations) means that it won’t necessarily be broadened to include e-cigarettes, but the possibility is definitely there.
For tobacco, the case against flavorings is laid out in an FDA fact sheet, arguing that flavored cigarettes are appealing to youth and may hook them into lifelong smoking. One referenced study found that almost 23 percent of 17-year old smokers had used flavored cigarettes in the past month, compared to under 7 percent of smokers aged over 25. Other studies suggest that youth in 2008 (the year before the rule came in) were twice as likely as adults to see (or at least recall seeing) ads for flavored tobacco products or the products themselves. Most worryingly, some youth claimed to choose flavored combustible products under the mistaken belief that they’re safer than unflavored tobacco.
Couple this with leaked documents from tobacco companies – which often explicitly state that adding flavors to cigarettes is a strategy to get youths smoking – and you have the perfect storm: more than enough reason to think about seriously limiting flavored cigarettes. While not everyone may agree that it’s necessary to limit adult consumers’ choices for this reason, it’s clear that a strong argument can be made for such a move.
Extending the Characterizing Flavor Ban to E-Cigarettes
The case for extending the flavor ban to e-cigarettes is notably weaker, however. Firstly, the underlying principle behind such actions is the fundamental and undeniable danger associated with combusted tobacco use. E-cigarettes, in comparison, are undoubtedly much, much safer than cigarettes, and in fact, based on current evidence there’s no reason to expect significant harm from them at all.
This becomes even more difficult to justify when e-cigarettes’ role as reduced harm tobacco substitutes is considered. Despite concerns about youth e-cigarette use, the evidence to date strongly suggests that almost all regular users (and the vast majority of those who’d ever tried vaping) are (or were) smokers. Any consideration of the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes must therefore be placed into context with the risks of tobacco, and it’s clear from any such comparison that using e-cigarettes represents a huge reduction in risk for smoking youth. The fundamental underlying justification for harsh actions against cigarettes simply doesn’t apply to e-cigarettes.
Other research provides even more reason to question the logic of a ban on characterizing flavors in e-cigarettes. Firstly, studies show that e-cigarette flavors are very important to the success of e-cigarettes for adult users. Not only do they provide a benefit of e-cigarettes in comparison to tobacco cigarettes (they taste better), they also help to differentiate vaping from smoking as a habit. This may be one of the reasons that there is no evidence of e-cigarettes being a gateway to tobacco cigarettes.
The most directly relevant study directly asked youth and adults how appealing they found various e-cigarette flavors. The results were unanimous: teens really don’t care much about bubblegum flavored e-cigarettes or any of the other flavors commonly used as examples of e-cigarettes appealing to youth. They did appeal to one group, though: adult smokers. You may recognize this as the intended market for e-cigarettes.
Despite all of this, you’ll have undoubtedly noticed that the exact same arguments are used against e-cigarette flavors as were used against tobacco cigarette flavors. State-level bans of characterizing flavors in e-cigarettes are increasingly being proposed, and it’s looking like something similar may be considered at federal level in the future.
The lack of a clear rationale behind such a move is obvious to anybody who’s spent time looking at the research into e-cigarettes, but if we’ve learned anything from what’s happened with e-cigarettes so far, it’s that things like this proceed even without science to back them up.
A Damaging Decision, But One We’re Ready For
Banning characterizing flavors in e-cigarettes would leave only tobacco and menthol, impacting on many vapers and crippling the vast majority of e-liquid companies. Such a move would make it harder for smokers to quit through vaping, would remove one of the major benefits of vaping and would do so while providing no benefit whatsoever to consumers or society at large.
Here at Black Note, we don’t use any characterizing flavors anyway – our e-liquids are all based on naturally-extracted tobacco flavors (with one menthol e-liquid) – We might be ready for whatever irrational regulatory decisions the future holds, but we stand firmly and resolutely against them. E-cigarettes need to be appealing to as many smokers as possible; jeopardizing that to allay unfounded concerns about youth non-smokers taking up vaping would be tragic and ultimately harmful.