Let us consider the inexorable march of Father Time. Minors do not feel a nostalgic warmth when recalling the cloying flavors of Reagan-era sugar coated breakfast cereals. A low volume Scooby Doo themed vape juice, which was no doubt inspired by the imaginary drug references supposedly embedded in this 1970s Hanna Barbara cartoon, have had no impact on the teen vaping epidemic. Colorful descriptions of your favorite childhood candy will not resonate with someone born in 2003.
CDC National Youth Tobacco Survey
The CDC sat on the results of the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey while the independent vaping industry faced extinction. The results of this survey debunked the popular and misguided theory that flavors are the primary catalyst for underage use.
The availability of flavored vapes barely beat out “vape tricks” for third place. Over twice as many youth said curiosity was the reason they tried e-cigarettes. Less than a quarter of kids vape because of flavors.
The results of the survey should finally kill off the most resilient and dangerous zombie vaping myth: The Fruit Flavor Fallacy. This is the belief that flavored ejuices were formulated to appeal to children and are responsible for the teen vaping epidemic.
Adults Prefer Flavored Vapes
Adult preferences are responsible for the proliferation of flavored vapes, referred to as characterizing flavors by the FDA. In regulatory speak a characterizing flavor is a distinguishable taste or aroma of candy, chocolate, vanilla, fruit, berry, nut, herb, spice, honey or an alcoholic drink that is imparted to either prior to or during consumption.
As demonstrated in a survey of 69,000 adult vapers by Dr. Farsalino, flavored vapes are overwhelmingly preferred by adults who vape and tobacco ejuices make up a much smaller percentage of the market.
Despite adult flavor preferences driving the vaping market, it is an article of faith among anti-vapers that candy, fruit, cereal and other sweet vape flavors are "kid-friendly".
The luridly colored bottles and bright packaging of sweet characterizing flavors are frequently used as props by politicians. Yet when it was time to question minors about why they vape, the menthol derived mint flavor was included in the survey’s question about flavors.
Due to the long running battle to ban menthol cigarettes, mint is often excluded from proposed flavor bans, such as the one in New York. Characterizing flavors are banned in combustible cigarettes and it is much easier to make a legal case for banning fruit and candy flavors from ecigarettes, as they are governed by the same regulators. This sleight of hand should not go unremarked.
On the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey, the CDC’s list of appealing flavors included Mint, Candy, Fruit and Chocolate. These four examples do not carry the same weight. While the fruit inspired Juul Mango is a popular flavor with minors, candy and chocolate vape juices have almost no market penetration among youth.
Mint, a flavor description which is used interchangeably with menthol in the vaping industry, was included in the survey because Juul Mint is the most popular flavor with minors. Or at least was until Juul Mint was discontinued this fall.
Menthol is not a characterizing flavor. The staid packaging and basic flavor profile of Juul Mint is a far cry from the brightly colored, candy-flavored, child luring, vape juice boogie-man that critics and politicians repeatedly invoke.
The inclusion of mint in the survey was a step in the right direction as it acknowledged the flavor, if not the specific device, that most kids are actually vaping. But including the wildly popular mint flavor in the survey question certainly had an impact on the outcome.
Candy and chocolate were included on the survey for the sake of optics. They conjure the image of a candy store and are the types of flavors that most upset anti-vapers.
Why not just ask if kids are vaping because they simply don't taste like cigarettes?
When creating a backdrop for anti-vaping legislation, politicians handpick the most colorful vape packaging and descriptive flavors as possible. That they consistently choose the same set of obscure vape juice flavors shows a intellectual laziness and a lack of good faith.
Creatively formulated sweet flavors are not the ones preferred or used by minors. This reality is ignored when there are political points to score and restrictions to be imposed on adults.
As former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has noted and anyone paying attention should know, minors who vape have shown an overwhelming preference for prefilled nic salt vape pod kits.
There are no chocolate or candy flavored prefilled vape pods available on the US market.
The preference for prefilled vape pods is not only a trend among minors. When Marlboro-maker Altria purchased 35 percent of Juul last winter, the San Francisco vape pod giant had cornered 75 percent of the vaping market. Adults have shown a distinct preference for convenient, satisfying and easy to conceal closed pod systems.
Ejuices with names like Unicorn Milk, Scooby Snacks and Tutti Frutti make great straw men but they are not being vaped in any quantity by minors. Hence the inclusion of the high volume mint flavor in the CDC survey to bolster their results.
A CDC study showing 60 percent of minors vape flavors is a number born from the popularity of Juul Mint and Mango. The sales of Scooby Snacks ejuice is not even a rounding error.
The belief that minors give a whit about Tutti Frutti, Scooby Snacks, Nilla Wafers, Gummi Bears or any other nostalgic Baby Boomer/Gen-X flavor or cultural touchstone is pure hubris. It makes about as much sense as a cigarette company in relying on the comedic stylings of W.C. Fields and images of young Katherine Hepburn to sell cigarettes to kids in the 1970s.
Retro themed ejuice flavors target adult vapers. That being said, it was probably poor judgment to adopt the trade dress and famous packaging of 1980s food products. This was an issue until 2017 and has since been remedied. Juul has always utilized tastefully branded but understated design elements on all of their products.
Fanciful and complex vape flavors, the ones with names like Unicorn Milk, are low nicotine, high-vegetable glycerin (VG) formulations. This style of vape juice is formulated for use in box mods.
How Cuttwood's Unicorn Milk ended up in the crosshairs of Senator Romney remains unclear. Maybe it sounds like something his now middle-aged children would have liked in 1983? Adults of Tag Romney's generation are a core component of the actual target audience of high-VG vape juices.
Terms like box mod, nic salts and high-VG are often dismissed as confusing jargon by anti-vapers but these are distinctions of critical importance. Moreover, untangling "confusing jargon" would seem to be a requisite if the goal is understanding and restricting specific classes of product in a legitimate industry.
Anti-vaping politicians have been nothing if not consistent, lashing out at the phantasmic specter of "kid-friendly flavors", all while the popularity of Juul Mint was orders of magnitude higher.
Understanding the basics about vaping devices and flavors is crucial information in a scenario where politicians are moving to ban vaping devices and flavors. Determining which devices and flavors are preferred by teens would also appear to be a salient issue.
Service revolver sized box mods are about the least kid-friendly device imaginable. They are complex, loud, and the very opposite of discrete. A full 18650 battery dock is recommended for many models. And to top it off, they burn through vast quantities of ejuice. Generally, box mods are fueled with either zero or low-nicotine ejuice. The recommended range is generally 0.3 to 0.6 percent. Compare that to a Juul, which has nic strength of 2.5 or 5.0 percent.
I love my box mod but it is about as easy to conceal as a trumpet and not much quieter.
While the august experts were working hard to ban vape juices named after fantastical fruit, cereal and dessert concoctions, kids were discretely vaping mint nic salts.
Gummi Bear and Tutti Frutti ejuice even made it into the text of the SAFE Kids Act.
There are some exceptions. Michigan State Rep Steve Johnson proposed an exemption for lower nicotine flavored ejuices, a style of vaping enjoyed almost exclusively by hobbyists and adults. This level of understanding and nuance is refreshing in a debate that has centered on flavors rather than nicotine levels and stealthy devices for too long.
Proponents of the theory that kids are lured by complex and sweet vaping flavors need to devise an alternate explanation. One that actually accounts for the flavors and devices that minors are using. Hint: the availability of candy and chocolate flavors is irrelevant.
Scott Gottlieb’s legacy will not be one of friendship or pandering to the vaping industry. Yet Gottlieb willingly concedes that closed vape pods are also popular with adults and that denying access is a fraught exercise.
While anti-vapers are fixated on blueberry cheesecake flavored vape juice and something called Tutti Frutti, minors are vaping something else entirely.
The spike in teenage vaping coincided with the introduction of potent nic salts and the silent, odorless and discrete devices that they fuel.
Nic salts allowed small and underpowered vaping devices to deliver a satisfying experience. Nic salts have a lower pH and this gives ejuice makers the ability really ramp up the nicotine level.
As the battery makes up much of the mass of an ecig, nic salts allow for miniaturization. The end result is an extremely compact device that generates almost no noise, odor or vapor.
These are great traits for an adult looking for a nic fix on break or after dinner. In the US, Juul sales to adults dwarf the combined sales of the rest of the vaping industry and convenience plays a huge role. In the UK, where nicotine levels are capped, the Juul device has not proved as popular.
Most adults are just looking for an easy and flavorful nicotine delivery system. Unfortunately, an effective and discrete device for adults is also ideal for a minor who wants to vape on the sly.
Vapor4Life has no interest in selling to minors or to adults who do not smoke or vape. We have long realized that teen vaping poses an existential threat to our industry and has a deleterious impact on all parties involved.
The top reason listed by minors who vape: curiosity. The largest ecig manufacturer Juul has spent very little on marketing. They have shown a disconcerting willingness to retreat under pressure as well, such as when they ditched the name Crème Brulee when pressured by outside groups.
Why a delicious faux-French Dessert that peaked in popularity a generation ago is thought to hold sway over today’s youth is murky at best. Compare this to the $160 million that Michael Bloomberg has spent to end teen vaping by banning the flavors that adults prefer.
Juul’s partner Altria supports a flavor ban, which would leave their heat-not-burn FDA approved iQOS in a nearly unassailable position. But as recently as last winter, Juul was striking back with a study that supported the role of flavors and the efficacy of their products for adults making the switch to vaping.
Stanford E-Cig Marketing Study
Juul learned the dangers e-cig marketing on social media first hand when they were the subject of a bizarre yet colorful “e-cig marketing study” conducted by Stanford University. This study prompted a Senate investigation of Juul.
The Stanford ecig marketing study is nothing more than a slideshow with curated and heavily biased captions. It has very "7th Grade School Project" feel to it.
Many of their complaints focus on Juul’s short lived “Vaporized” campaign. The study noted that Juul featured: “Models in their 20s appearing in trendy clothes engaged in poses and movements more evocative of underage teens than mature adults.” Would you like ranch, Italian or thousand island with your word salad?
The authors chose to clarify this vague accusation with a cryptic description: “Some attendees were photographed in poses reminiscent of teen behavior, such as wearing a hat on backwards, while holding a skate board, or a girl with purple hair holding a Juul.” Does anyone else remember Poochie from the The Simpsons?
Should Juul have featured paunchy Gen Xers in cargo shorts, hiding their balding pates under dad caps and boasting that the craft beer craze actually started in the 1990s with Anchor Steam and Sierra Nevada?
Perhaps the worst entry is this bit of misogyny: “Photos show attractive young girls in colorful Juul tee shirts serving as hosts and distributors of free samples.” Below is their image of “young girls”.
Would two men of similar age in gender equivalent clothing ever be described as “young boys”? This is inappropriate, insulting and nonsensical.
And what company employs sickly and sullen adults to market their products?
Millennial Does Not Equal Minor
In other breaking news, Millennial does not equal minor. The major drop in smoking rates did not start until after the vast majority of Millennials had reached legal age to smoke.
Generational borders are blurry but Millennials range from 20 to 39 years of age. Targeting the substantial number of adult Millennial smokers, many of whom are approaching middle age, may be crass. But it is not marketing to children.
In fifth place on the CDC list was the perception that vaping is less harmful than smoking. This point should not be glossed over. The major drop in teenage smoking is a recent breakthrough. The smoking rate among 12th graders has plunged since its 1990s peak.
This is not a huge surprise. Risky teen behaviors have been on the decline for over a decade. Education about the dangers of smoking and age verification were the cornerstones of this public health triumph.
The fact that curiosity was first by such a wide margin reveals an uncomfortable truth for the political class. With anti-vapers tilting at chocolate and candy vape juice windmills, they totally missed the boat on teen vaping trends.
Anti-vaping zealots should pause to consider their role and if their shrill anti-flavor campaign is the Reefer Madness of the 21st century. Alarmist propaganda that stretches the bounds of credulity can play a significant role in high risk teen behaviors.
Education versus Prohibition
Rather than banning flavors, the focus should be on education, age verification and punishing those who divert e-cigarettes to minors. These strategies are considered sufficient for alcohol, a scourge that kills 4,300 minors annually and sends 130,000 to the emergency room according to the CDC. They also have proven successful when dealing with other risky teen behaviors.
The comparison to alcohol is not totally fair. At last check, there is no country that considers alcohol an important harm reduction tool.
The National Health Service in the UK hosts resource page titled, “Using E-Cigarettes to Stop Smoking”, and consider vaping 95% safer than smoking. In a New England Journal of Medicine study, vaping crushed nicotine replacement therapy as a smoking cessation tool.
This study is dismissed by critics because the vapers in the study continued to vape after one year. But this critique does not factor in the the highly developed ecosystem of resources and programs which have been constructed to support nicotine replacement therapy. Despite heavy support from the pharmaceutical industry and peer reviewed best practices, nicotine replacement therapy was still less than half as effective as vaping.
Why not invest in developing a scientific and practical titration program for vapers? The trend of our customers is to reduce their nicotine level over time. Why not formalize a tapering process and create a rationalized program to help adult vapers reduce their nicotine intake with the goal of quitting vaping? Why not look to the UK, which promotes vaping and has a lower rate of teen use.
Strict E-Cig Laws Punish Marginalized Groups
The major difference between drinking and vaping is that the wealthy have largely quit smoking but the highest rates of drinking are found in the loftiest income brackets. It is quite easy to demand a puritanical gold-standard of total abstinence when the vice in question does not impact you or anyone you love. Nothing is easier than surrendering the freedom of others.
Strict e-cig laws punish marginalized groups. Rural residents are especially hard hit by ecig restrictions, which led Iowa AG Thomas Miller to blast the FDA for restricting access to ash and smoke free cigarette alternatives.
In an especially ironic and horrific twist, San Francisco punished marginalized residents with vaping prohibition. The city viewed might be viewed as a bastion for LGBTQ+ rights but their harsh vaping restrictions will disproportionately impact the LGBT community, a group which smokes and vapes at a higher rate than any other.
The CDC reports that over 20 percent of adults who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual smoke cigarettes. The LGBT population of the US is three times more likely to use electronic cigarettes, 7.5 versus 2.6 percent.
The higher smoking rate results in over 30,000 deaths annually and significant health disparities. San Francisco is known for embracing humane harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges, life-saving NARCAN and proposed safe injection sights. This compassion is not extended to smokers or vapers, whose drug of choice is legal.
To propose total abstinence as the solution for any other legal adult behavior would get you laughed out of almost any social circle in San Francisco. It certainly should not be taken seriously as a public policy.
The San Francisco e-cig ban was overwhelmingly supported by voters in the city. Much of the blame for this shortsighted policy can be thrown at the feet of the news media and their careless reporting of vaping lung disease. A general distaste for local ecig giant Juul certainly played a major role as well.
Why Kids Vape
The CDC study sheds some light on the teen vaping uptick. But it fails to address the fact that tobacco ejuices just aren’t that popular. Most adults do not consider them anywhere near as satisfying as mint or the controversial characterizing flavors. Remove vape flavors from the market and many adult vapers will revert to smoking. This is how public health disasters are born.
The most popular flavor with kids is not even a characterizing flavor, it is a menthol derivative. And it certainly isn't chocolate. The answer is never chocolate when it comes to vaping.
If most former smokers do not choose tobacco ejuices, why would an underage initiate? Even factoring in the widespread rejection of tobacco vape juices, the existence of alternative flavors is not the primary reason minors vape. Remove the nicotine and the appeal is gone entirely. Minors vape for the same reasons that a third of their number smoked in the 1990s.
It is a shame that the CDC could not word their survey to see how much appeal the constantly criticized fruit, candy, chocolate and cereal vapes really have. They have been the target of editorials and bans. Kids don't appear to be vaping these flavors and this information deserves wider dissemination.
When push came to shove, mint was thrown into the question on flavors and the sheer popularity of Juul Mint distorted the results. Even with the inclusion of mint, flavor was nowhere near the top reason that kids vape.
It was a natural curiosity about e-cigarettes, a frequent target of misinformation. And there is no greater example of this misinformation than the fruit flavor fallacy.