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The role of flavours in tobacco
harm reduction

A choice of flavours helps adult smokers transition away from smoking. Dr Thomas Nahde,
Head of Harm Reduction and Engagement, explains why.

Over the past 20 years, vapes have helped countless smokers worldwide switch away from cigarettes, with huge potential benefits to their health.

A growing body of research suggests that the availability of a choice of flavours has been important in persuading consumers to move away from smoking and – just as importantly – not return to smoking.

When vapes first emerged in the mid-2000s only tobacco and mint flavours were available.

Our blu brand was one of the first e-cigarettes to be commercialised, and – despite our best efforts – initial interest in vaping among the world’s one billion-plus smokers was limited.

Many consumers reported that vapes were neither sufficiently ‘satisfying’ nor ’interesting’ for them to give up cigarettes.

Over the past decade, there has been a surge in smokers using vapes as an alternative, and the category has evolved to offer an ever-expanding choice of flavours – with fruit profiles being the most popular.

Research indicates that an important catalyst for this trend has been this growing choice of flavours.

Flavours are crucial in both initially attracting – cited by almost 30% of respondents in one study1  – and retaining adult smokers’ interest in using vapes and other next generation products. Once adult smokers have become accustomed to vaping flavours it appears the tobacco taste of a cigarette becomes less appealing2.

The way adult smoker switchers are using flavours also continues to evolve. Previously3, they initially switched to vaping using tobacco and menthol flavours before transitioning to fruity flavours; our research suggests they are now more likely to transition directly to fruity opions.

For instance, first time purchases of these flavours in the US almost doubled between 2011 and 2016 – while tobacco and menthol flavour purchases halved4.

While the flavours that switchers choose may – and often do – vary over time, the broader role they play in helping ensure adult smokers not only switch to next generation products (NGP), but stay switched and satisfied, is clear.

For instance, one study suggested the use of fruit and other flavoured e-liquids was positively related to smokers’ transitioning away from cigarettes5, while another concluded: “those (subjects using) flavoured e-cigarettes, particularly menthol or mint, are more likely to quit successfully6".

Conversely, restricting the flavours available to vapers is likely to reduce their appeal and therefore their effectiveness as tobacco harm reduction tools.

We are concerned that heavy-handed calls to ban all vape flavours apart from tobacco significantly increase the likelihood vapers would gravitate towards the black market to source their preferred flavours. This has been observed in countries (Australia) and states (California) where such flavour bans are in force.

Additionally, while the current evidence7 does not indicate vaping is a ‘gateway’ to smoking initiation, it is not inconceivable that flavour bans leading to tobacco-only vapes could inadvertently increase the chances of some vapers returning to smoking cigarettes.

This would be a significant own goal for public health.

While adult consumer choice is important, unfortunately not all manufacturers and retailers act responsibly.

Inappropriate flavours, flavour names, packaging, advertisements and vape formats have understandably led to societal concerns around their appeal to underage users. We share these concerns and are committed to promoting the responsible development of vaping.

To become a public health success, all NGP must not only be scientifically substantiated to be less harmful than cigarettes they also need to be satisfying, accepted, and used by significant numbers of adult smokers and nicotine users instead of cigarettes (see harm reduction equation graphic below). 

Use by unintended audiences like youth has the potential to severely undermine their broader public heath potential.

Consumer acceptance

The regulation of flavours is therefore a delicate balancing act. To maximise the public health benefit, it’s necessary to help adult smokers transition away from tobacco by offering varied experiences, while reducing the likelihood that marketing flavours attracts youth and never smokers.

That said, there are practical and enforceable steps to help achieve this and Imperial Brands has long advocated for consistent, clear, and effective NGP regulation.

We’re committed to making a meaningful contribution to harm reduction through our NGP and will continue to seek engagement with regulators on this important topic.

Consumer case studies

Emeric, 41, France, blu consumer

"I was a smoker for years, wanting to quit but never able to until I decided to try vaping. Now I only vape. I like the flavours, and this is the reason I carry on. I find that I don’t like the taste of cigarettes now.
At first when I was vaping, I was going for a lot of minty things and over time I went to a more fruity vibe. Sometimes I want a watermelon vibe, sometimes a mango vibe.
There's a lot more variety. The flavours I pick are based on how I feel, it’s like music. I like dance and reggae, but I don’t listen to the same thing every day, it depends on my mood."

Ignacio, 31, Spain, blu consumer

"Currently I'm using mixed berry, but I also like watermelon, or even peach flavour, and blueberry. I usually change every time that I go to buy new pods, but the fruity ones are those I like the most. This is one of the pros of vaping, right? The fact that we can experiment with flavours in a way that you cannot with traditional cigarettes.
The smell of the flavour stays just for a while, and then it goes away. But with cigarettes, that smell… friends who visit even a few days later will still know that I have smoked. I'm not going to move back to traditional cigarettes."

Donna, 41, UK, blu consumer

"I started vaping as I didn’t want to smoke at home during lockdown, but now it’s more for the taste and enjoyment. You want that relaxing element. I’ve never gone back to smoking – I am a vaper now. With flavours, it's like with a wine drinker. You can have a red wine, a white wine or a rosé, but they each have a distinctive taste. I like the taste and smell of fruity flavours.
Even though I used to smoke, they’re much nicer than the tobacco flavour vapes, which I find too harsh. Talk of restricting flavours has alarm bells ringing for me. I would have to stock up in that case, because I don’t want to go back to cigarettes."

* The comments above were recorded during consumer research sessions organised on behalf of Imperial Brands, and are reproduced here with their agreement.

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