Over the years, we’ve done several experiments with unusual vape flavours.
Very often we’ve done this for a bit of fun, but sometimes the results have surprised us.
A good few years ago, for example, we went to a vape show with a small range of very unusual flavours.
One of them was barbecue sauce flavour.
As you’d expect, most people absolutely hated it. But one elderly man told us it was the first thing he’d tasted since having a stroke.
The same occurred with a Voop Juice range we created for April Fool’s day. These e-liquids were deliberately designed to taste awful, and I found the Cheese and Onion flavour disgusting. But some people actually liked it.
The point is, there’s several types of e-liquid and thousands of e-liquid on the market now. Some are unusual, and appeal to a small audience, while others, like Vampire Vape’s Heisenberg and T-Juice’s Red Aistaire, have gained huge popularity around thousands of vapers. The benefit of this is that, no matter what your taste preference is, there’ll be something out there that you’ll love.
And that’s important, because the more you enjoy vaping, and the further you move away from tobacco flavours, the less likely you are to return to smoking.
What the research says
Does the research back this up?
Given that there’s a ridiculous number of vaping studies being published nowadays, there’s not a huge amount of research on the importance of flavours in:
- switching from smoking to vaping
- preventing relapse from vaping to smoking.
There is some, though. A survey of over 4000 vapers, lead by Konstantinos Farsalinos in 2013, found that 48.5% of vapers felt that restricting flavours would increase cravings for cigarettes, while 39.7% felt that fewer flavours would make it less likely for them to quit smoking.
Since then, non-tobacco flavours have become more important in initiation. In Konstantinos’ original survey, the majority of vapers started vaping with tobacco flavours, but a more recent survey which looked at the flavour preferences of over 70,000 vapers found that non-tobacco flavours (in the US) were the predominant choice when starting vaping. The study concluded that banning flavours could lead to a decrease in people starting vaping and an increase in people switching back from vaping to smoking.
This is backed up by research by Russell et al, which found that menthol and tobacco flavours now rank in 5th and 6th place amongst adult vapers. In a press conference organised by the New Nicotine Alliance, Russell talked further about the results, saying:
“Evidence from our own research suggests that a significantly higher proportion of smokers who prefer to vape non-tobacco flavors go on to completely quit smoking cigarettes within three months.”
In other words, non-tobacco flavours lead to a higher success rate when switching completely from smoking to vaping. This has been backed up by a more recent study by Buckell et al (published since this post was first written). Using a discrete choice experiment with other 2000 adult vapers, the authors found a flavour ban on e-cigarettes would lead to an increase in smoking rates. Meanwhile, Lin Li et al found that “the use of fruit and other sweet flavored e-liquids is positively related to smokers’ transition away from cigarettes”.
Another smaller study by Pacek et al surveyed 240 young adults who dual use (both vape and smoke). In their survey, 17% of young vapers said they would smoke more if flavours were limited to tobacco and menthol.
The idea that specific flavours could be important is backed up by industry research by JUUL, which found that vapers who used Mint or Menthol were 23% more likely to switch to vaping than those who used tobacco flavours.
Could flavours assist dual vapers?
Not everyone switches to vaping immediately. After all, your first puff on an electronic cigarette doesn’t mean your last puff on a tobacco cigarette.
Research shows that 46% of dual vapers have completely switched to electronic cigarettes after a year, but for others it can take much longer.
My personal experience is that a wide variety of flavours can help dual vapers retain interest. I’ve seen people who continue to smoke a few cigarettes a day experiment a lot with different flavours. If flavours can help retain interest, then dual vapers will smoke less, hopefully not go back to 100% smoking and eventually switch to 100% vaping.
Perhaps, for some, it’s just a matter of finding that perfect e-liquid (and with thousands of flavours out there, that can take some time).
But what about the children?
The e-liquid flavour debate has been framed in the US by the danger or children taking up vaping. The idea is that if e-liquid flavours appeal to children, it could be a gateway to smoking and therefore some/most/all flavours should be banned.
The simplicity of the argument is appealing, but as so often happens, when you start digging you find the reality is more complex. Here’s a few things to take into consideration:
Flavours don’t just appeal to children
Many in the anti-vaping world don’t (or won’t) understand that adults are more likely to vape something that is tasty and enjoyable.
I believe this is because:
a. They don’t talk to vapers
b. Because they see alternatives to smoking (nicotine gum, patches and sometimes vaping too) as a medicine to treat sick people – and medicines are not supposed to be enjoyable.
Flavours, they argue, exist for one purpose only – to appeal to children.
So it’s surprising to learn that in the US senate there’s a candy desk, where sweets are stored for apparently sweet toothed senators.
One of the favourite flavours? In 2014 Jelly Beans was the preferred sweet for four Senators, although toffee, M&Ms, Snickers and chocolate covered peanuts also make an appearance.
And they’re not alone – in fact 98% of Americans enjoy candy at least some point in the year. Back here in the UK, adults in the 19-64 bracket also enjoy sugar, getting 26% of their daily 60 grams or so from sweets, sugar and jams, 25% from soft drinks and 21% from cereals, cakes and biscuits.
In summary, while adults are more likely than children to enjoy sour and complex flavours, many also remain partial to sweet flavours.
Do ‘childish’ flavours attract young people who want to appear more adult?
Cigarettes don’t come in flavours, but that doesn’t stop teenagers from smoking (although fortunately smoking rates have plunged since vaping become popular). Perhaps that’s because young people could be smoking to appear more like adults.
It’s intriguing that, as Clive Bates has highlighted, one survey found that the most popular flavour amongst youngsters was Malt Whisky flavour (albeit not statistically significant). The same study found that interest in vaping flavours amongst non-smokers was low in both non-smoking adults and children (with children showing less interest than adults).
Flavours do not appear to lead to regular use in non-smoking children
The amount of young people who vape regularly has been massively exaggerated, potentially at least partly for financial reasons. Children are experimenting with vaping (albeit mostly with zero nicotine e-liquid), but that’s not transforming into regular use amongst non-smoking children. So flavours do not seem to be leading to a pattern of regular use in non-smoking young people.
Could flavours help smoking teenagers to quit smoking?
A massively ignored fact in youth vaping is that some young people who do use e-cigarettes do so to try and stop smoking. NHS data tells us that 39% of children who quit smoking did so with vaping – that compares to just 1% who used stop smoking service. If flavours help dual vapers (and as we’ve seen, the research suggests it does,) flavours could be a positive.
Vaping could be having a protective effect
Who’s vaping? Probably children who are rebellious (especially given the free advertising the FDA has given vaping and JUUL in schools telling children not to vape ), and probably the sort of children who would have tried smoking. And as I’ve already mentioned, vaping amongst non-smoking children is not turning into regular use.
What will children do if vaping is made unattractive (for example by removing flavours)? Is it possible they could try smoking instead? Youth smoking rates have plunged since vaping become popular – do we really want to risk reversing that trend?
(As a side note, San Francisco’s chief economist, Ted Egan, recently asserted that the city’s vape ban would not affect the city’s economy, as the money spent on vape products would be spend on other nicotine products – including cigarettes.)
Let vaping do its job (and don’t accidentally advertise it to children)
I believe vaping has been successful partly because of the interplay between consumer demand and industry. The industry can only be successful if they create products that match what consumers need and want – the result is a dynamic selection of products with something to suit anyone.
Start controlling that process, whether by restricting flavours or devices, and you risk derailing an innovation which has lead to a massive decrease in smoking rates. At the same time, the efforts to demonise vaping, and specifically products like JUUL, in the USA has massively raised the awareness of vaping amongst youngsters and made it seem like a cool and rebellious thing to do.
The best solution is probably what is happening in the UK at the moment; carefully monitor what’s happening with youngsters, enforce rules that stop sales and advertising to children, but don’t make knee jerk reactions based on incomplete or bad data that risk ruining vaping for adults.
Buckell et al, Should Flavors be Banned in E-cigarettes? Evidence on Adult Smokers and Recent Quitters from a Discrete Choice Experiment, Sept 2017, The National Bureau of Economic Choice
Duyff R. et al, Candy Consumption Patterns, Effects on Health, and Behavioral Strategies to Promote Moderation: Summary Report of a Roundtable Discussion, Jan 2015, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 6, Issue 1, Pages 139S–146S, doi.org/10.3945/an.114.007302
Farsalinos K. et al, Impact of Flavour Variability on Electronic Cigarette Use Experience: An Internet Survey, Dec 2013 Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2013, 10(12), 7272-7282; doi.org/10.3390/ijerph10127272
Farsalinos K. et al, Patterns of flavored e-cigarette use among adults vapers in the United States: an internet survey( (Dropbox)
Pacek et al, Young adult dual combusted cigarette and e-cigarette users’ anticipated responses to hypothetical e-cigarette market restrictions, July 2019, Journal Substance Use and Misuse, doi.org/10.1080/10826084.2019.1626435
Lee et al, How does the use of flavored nicotine vaping products relate to progression towards quitting smoking? Findings from the 2016 and 2018 ITC 4CV Surveys Feb 2021, Pubmed, DOI: 10.1093/ntr/ntab033
Russell et al, Changing patterns of first e-cigarette flavor used and current flavors used by 20,836 adult frequent e-cigarette users in the USA, 2018, Harm Reduction Journal,
Shiffman et al, The Impact of Flavor Descriptors on Nonsmoking Teens’ and Adult Smokers’ Interest in Electronic Cigarettes, PubMed, 2015 Oct;17(10):1255-62. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntu333. Epub 2015 Jan 7.
Juul labs presents new data on the role of flavors in switching from combustible cigarettes, June 2019, Juul data insights