In 2014, about one in four teens nationwide reported smoking an e-cigarette, which are lauded in the vaping industry as a safer alternative to cigarettes. But the Food and Drug Administration is looking at potentially limiting or banning these e-cigarette flavors.
For example, something called Cutwood that has hints of Golden Honey Graham cereal, roasted nut clusters, creamy milk and sliced bananas.
Technically these are called “electronic nicotine delivery devices,” but you might call them e-cigarettes, vape pens or hookah pens. They’re devices that let people inhale nicotine, but without the usual tar associated with traditional cigarettes. Marty Wade works at retailer Up N’ Smoke.
“In most places you’ll go into, they’ll have these flavor menus, they’ll have these funny little names for them and below it’ll show what flavor it actually is.”
There’s astro – a ‘natural artificial strawberry apple blend.’ The previously mentioned “Cutwood,” which is definitely cereal-esque. Then there are the more traditional tobacco flavors.
But the availability of all of these flavored e-cigs could be changing. They’re regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and the federal agency is considering potentially banning or limiting these flavors. Mitch Zeller, the head of tobacco policy at the FDA, said the concern is two-fold. Some of the ingredients that make the flavor in e-cigs have been found to be toxic, and research is still emerging on that. And he says the other concern is that these flavored e-cigs are often marketed to teenagers.
“If kids are walking around thinking I can experiment with an e-cig because it’s safer, they shouldn’t. No teenager should be taking any nicotine delivery product. You can get addicted to it, and unfortunately the data shows that kids who experiment with an e-cig are more likely to be smoking a regular cig 12 months down the road than kids who never experimented with an e-cig,” said Zeller. While fewer teens are smoking traditional cigarettes, almost 42 percent of Kentucky high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes, according to a 2015 poll.
Marty Wade says he doesn’t think that’s the point of having flavored e-cigs. “I don’t think that has anything to do with appealing to kids, it’s just giving people options.
But Sasha Torres says she can see how a teen could get addicted to e-cigs because of the flavor. A 30-year-old mom of three, she says when she was growing up, there were no e-cigs. But there were flavored menthol cigarettes.
“I did attempt one time, and it tasted nasty, and it stinks.”
So she didn’t pick it up. But had she been given a honey graham cereal-flavored e-cig at the age of 16, that may have been different.
“I probably would have thought it was good. I think flavoring will just increase teenagers to be tempted with it, like it’s candy.”
But there’s also a flip-side to these appealing flavorings: Zeller says they help some adults quit smoking cigarettes.
“On the other hand, there’s a potentially positive role that flavors are playing in helping addicted cigarette smokers successfully quit and switch to e-cigarettes.”
Marty Wade at Up N’ Smoke agrees. E-cigarette liquid comes with different levels of nicotine. He says many older customers – over the age of 35 – use that to quit cigarettes.
“A lot of people try to start off with the high nicotine level, and over the course of time go down until they eventually have 0 nicotine in them. And then the goal is accomplished.”
The Kentucky Smokeless Association, which represents e-cigarette makers and retailers, touts that e-cigarettes are a much less harmful product than traditional cigarettes. They didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In addition to exploring limiting e-cig flavors, the FDA is seeking public comments on a proposal to create a nicotine limit in cigarettes. That could force manufacturers to create a minimally-addictive cigarette. Zeller says that could reduce the percent of Americans who smoke from 15 percent to 2 percent. The public comment period for both issues close in June.