Federal regulators are gearing up to restrict vaping flavors, possibly limiting available product choices to tobacco flavors. But new research shows that regular vapers who have quit or reduced smoking prefer non-tobacco flavors.
A study from U.K. researchers at the Centre for Substance Use Research (CSUR) uses 2016 survey data from over 20,000 frequent vapers to show patterns of flavor preferences among American vapers. The study was led by Dr. Christopher Russell, who has led several studies on vaping in the past.
The researchers sent survey invitations to members of four consumer and trade vaping organizations: Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA), Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA), the American Vaping Association (AVA), and Not Blowing Smoke (NBS). Links to the survey were also posted on social media and in forums like ECF and Planet of the Vapes. After eliminating participants from outside the U.S. and duplicate responses (same email or IP address), the researchers were left with 20,836 usable surveys.
Russell and his team separated the survey participants into six categories. The largest by far (75.9%) was “switchers” — regular smokers who had quit cigarettes and were frequent vapers. The next largest group (11.9%), “Former-smoker e-cigarette users” consists of vapers who had already quit smoking, then adopted vaping.
Unlike the general population of people who use e-cigarettes, only about 7% of the survey participants were “dual users” of cigarettes and vapes. The majority of vapers who responded to this survey aren’t representative of vapers at large, most of whom still smoke cigarettes too. These are mostly ex-smokers who have successfully left cigarettes behind.
The value of surveying a group that consists mostly of full-time vapers who have quit smoking completely is that regular vapers’ flavor choices may suggest strategies that can help other smokers switch completely to vaping. It’s also a study that can be used in our comments on the FDA’s flavors rule.
A large majority of the survey participants used refillable devices like mods and tanks. Less than one percent used cigalike-type products. (Remember, this survey was done about midway through 2016. Pod vapes like JUUL had still not caught on as a common selection for regular vapers.)
What flavors do frequent vapers prefer?
Vapers in 2016 who had started vaping 3-5 years earlier mostly chose tobacco as their first flavor. But both tobacco and menthol/mint declined in popularity as a first vape flavor among those who started more recently.
“Since 2013, fruit-flavored e-liquids have replaced tobacco-flavored e-liquids as the most popular flavors with which participants had initiated e-cigarette use,” write the authors. “The proportion of first e-cigarette purchases that were dessert/pastry-flavored had also increased consistently, from being ranked fifth most common first flavor prior to 2011 to being ranked third in the past 12 months.”
Among those who initiated e-cig use with fruit flavors, the never-smoking group had the highest numbers. This makes sense, since as time passes and vaping becomes a more established and popular practice, more people will begin nicotine use with vaping rather than smoking.
Measuring currently used flavors, the categories fruit/fruit beverage, dessert/pastry, and candy/chocolate/sweets were the three most popular among all groups of vapers. Among switchers — former smokers who had quit completely and were frequent vapers — just 14.8% preferred tobacco flavors, and 14.3% preferred menthol/mint. About 40% of all vapers mixed two or more flavors.
Even dual users — current vapers who were also still smoking — were not lovers of tobacco flavors. Just 15.9% of that group preferred tobacco, and 16.3% chose menthol/mint vapes as their favorite.
That result will make sense to many vapers, who understand that after leaving cigarettes, we often come to prefer flavors that don’t remind us of smoking. Also, as our taste buds heal and begin working properly again, we may especially enjoy bright, sweet flavors. It’s difficult to imagine that this study will have much effect on the FDA though.
The FDA advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on flavors takes as a given that fruit- and other sweet-flavored e-liquids are especially appealing to youth. “For years we have recognized that flavors in these products appeal to kids and promote youth initiation,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement about the proposed regulation.
The FDA has already tried once to ban flavors (except tobacco and menthol) from vapor products. The agency has no more evidence now that such a thing would reduce teen vaping (or smoking) than it did in 2016. But Gottlieb and crew appear determined to push their plan to make “tobacco products” less addictive and “less appealing.” The FDA seems ready to ban the flavors that have helped millions of people stop or greatly reduce smoking.