Do Characterizing Flavors in E-Liquids Appeal to Youth?
Among the many concerns surrounding the rising popularity of e-cigarettes is their use by youth, and this often revolves around the use of “characterizing flavors.” The fear – held by many groups including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association – is that flavors like bubble gum, cotton candy and many others hold an intrinsic appeal to youth and will hook them into nicotine addiction. Here at Black Note, we only produce tobacco flavors – including one with menthol – and our aim is to produce flavors that appeal to adult smokers and already-switched vapers, but is there something behind the concerns in general? We take a look at the evidence.
The Rise in Youth E-Cigarette Use
Regardless of the impact of flavors, the fact remains that e-cigarettes are increasingly being used by youth. The National Youth Tobacco Survey provides the most reliable evidence on the rates of e-cigarette use by youths, and the data from 2011 to 2013 provides a good overview of the potential issue. This survey looks at middle and high school students, and separates e-cigarette users into two groups: ever-users, who have tried an e-cigarette at least once, and current users, who have used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days.
In 2011, 1.4 percent of middle school students had ever used an e-cigarette, and this increased to 2.7 percent in 2012 and again to 3 percent in 2013. For high school students, ever-use in 2011 stood at 4.7 percent, increasing to 10 percent in 2012 and again to 11.9 percent in 2013.
However, the past-month use figures provide a better picture of how many regular (daily or weekly) users there are (although this will still include some recent “experimenters”). For middle school students, past-month use rose from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 1.1 percent in 2012 and remained at 1.1 percent in 2013. In high school students, corresponding past-month use rates were 1.5 percent in 2011, 2.8 percent in 2012 and 4.5 percent in 2013.
Much of the concern understandably centers on e-cigarette use by youths who’ve never-smoked, because these could have been introduced to nicotine through e-cigarettes. A separate analysis of never-smokers using the 2011 to 2013 National Youth Tobacco survey data found that, of around 44,000 never-smoking youths, 0.9 percent had ever used an e-cigarette and 0.3 percent had done so in the past month.
The Evidence on E-Liquid Flavors Appealing to Youth
The concern about characterizing e-cig flavors appealing to youth is only supported by very scant data. One study published in December 2014 used focus groups from one middle school, two high schools and two colleges to look at the reasons for experimentation with e-cigarettes and for stopping using them. The results showed that available flavors were one of the most common reasons for experimentation (second only to curiosity), with around 44 percent saying that “appealing flavors” were a reason for experimenting.
However, another study (from January 2015) looked at the effect of flavor descriptors on interest in trying e-cigarettes, and found that different flavors being attached to e-cigarettes had little influence in their appeal to non-smoking teens. Their mean interest in trying e-cigs (on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no interest at all) was just 0.41, and this didn’t vary significantly with flavor, even when considering options like “gummy bear” and “cotton candy” that are frequently claimed to appeal to youth.
The Appeal of Flavors to Adult Smokers and Vapers
For adult smokers in the study above, different flavors did have a significant impact on their interest in trying e-cigs. This finding is supported by a survey of regular e-cigarette users, which found that users considered a variety of flavors “very important” to the success of e-cigarettes in helping them quit smoking, and just under half (48.5 percent) said that restrictions on available flavors would increase their cravings for cigarettes.
In general, it seems that the issue of e-cigarette flavors appealing to youth is a complicated one: there is limited evidence that flavors appeal to youth (although the only study on never-smokers indicated no particular appeal), but there’s also the suggestion that flavors are important for adult users. A balance is therefore needed to guard against the potential for such flavors to attract non-smokers, but without impacting on the appeal of e-cigarettes to adult smokers.
Characterizing Flavors in Cigarettes Appealing to Youth
For cigarettes, there is more clarity on the role of characterizing flavors in appealing to youths, and this was a key factor in the FDA’s decision to ban characterizing flavors in cigarettes. The supporting evidence comes in the form of both studies and leaked documents from tobacco companies. In one survey, for example, almost 23 percent of 17 year old smokers reported smoking flavored cigarettes, in comparison to less than 7 percent for smokers aged over 25. Additional evidence suggests that just over half of youth smokers (aged 13 to 18) who had heard of them reported interest in trying flavored cigarettes.
In combination with tobacco industry documents discussing the creation of a “youth cigarette” using sweet flavors, this is much more compelling reason for concern about youths starting smoking through flavored products.
For e-cigarettes and liquids, though, the evidence is considerably thinner on the ground and no internal documents from companies exist suggesting a desire to appeal to youth. It would be expected that the effect of flavors in cigarettes on youth uptake would carry over to e-cigarettes, but at present the evidence doesn’t back this assertion. However, characterizing flavors’ role in appealing to youth in cigarettes is clearly at the root of the concern about e-cigarettes.
Black Note’s Position on Characterizing Flavors and Marketing to Youth
Here at Black Note, we strongly believe that the marketing of nicotine-containing products to youth is immoral and dangerous. We don’t use any characterizing flavors in our e-liquids, with only tobacco and menthol available, and we also don’t add any artificial colors, preservatives or additives to our best tobacco e-juice.
While we don’t think that other e-liquid or e-cigarette companies are using flavors to appeal to youth (at least in general), we entirely understand the source of the concern. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made our flavors tobacco and menthol only; we have no desire whatsoever to attract any customers other than adult smokers and already-switched vapers, and our flavor-selection is a testament to that fact.
Additionally, abundant evidence suggests that raising the prices of cigarettes significantly reduces youth smoking, and this would be expected to carry over to e-cigarettes. Our tobacco e-liquid is high-quality, can’t be purchased in small quantities and the cost of even a single bottle is likely to be prohibitive to youth. In combination, the prestigious nature of our e-liquid, our adult-only flavors and the complete absence of any marketing to youth means it’s very unlikely that any teens will be found vaping Black Note e-liquids.
Overall, the evidence that characterizing flavors in e-cigarettes are being used to appeal to youth is scant, with the strongest evidence on the topic – which focused specifically on non-smoking youth – supporting the opposite conclusion. However, concern is likely to continue, driven in part by the actions of tobacco companies in the past. While we can’t definitively say that no e-liquid companies are intending to target youths, at present there is clearly no reason to assume the e-cigarette industry is behaving like tobacco companies have in the past with regards to this important issue.