Industry-Funded Study on Tasty Vape Flavors Shows Why They're a Problem

Public health officials and industry reps keep butting heads over fruity e-liquids.

Flickr / Sarah-Johsnon

The availability of fruit, candy, and dessert-flavored e-liquids has changed the face of vaping in the past 10 years, as the practice has morphed from a way to quit smoking into its own industry. Even though teens smoke less tobacco than they used to, public health advocates have expressed concern that the popularity of tasty vape flavors could contribute to more underaged smoking. But in a tobacco industry-funded paper published in the Harm Reduction Journal on Monday, researchers attempt to temper this concern, saying the flavors of these e-liquids may be key to helping people quit cigarettes.

In the study, researchers from the Centre for Substance Use Research (CSUR) in Glasgow, Scotland, funded by the company that owns the e-cigarette brand blu, show how vape users’ flavor preferences have changed over time. The results, they write, could indicate that flavored e-liquids may play a role in getting people to quit smoking.

The study was funded by the company that owns the e-cigarette company blu.

Analyzing the results of online surveys from 20,836 adults in the US who frequently use e-cigarettes, they found that people’s first e-cigarette purchases have dramatically shifted away from tobacco and menthol toward fruity flavors. Before 2011, 17.8 percent of respondents’ first e-cigarette purchases were fruity flavors, but between June 2015 and June 2016 that number increased to 33.5 percent. During the same time period, the proportion of first-time purchasers that bought tobacco or menthol flavors dropped from 46 percent before 2011 to 24 percent between 2015 and 2016. Out of all the survey respondents, 15,807 (75.9 percent) reported they’d completely switched from smoking to vaping.

These numbers, write the study’s authors, show that people who have used e-cigarettes to completely quit smoking are more and more likely to be interested in non-tobacco and non-menthol flavors. For this reason, they argue that fruity flavors could be a crucial part of helping adults quit smoking. This argument is completely at odds with the opinions that public health experts have about fruity vape flavors.

Flickr / The Electric Tobacconist

In response to the proliferation of these flavors, the US Food and Drug Administration has made some small moves to crack down on e-liquid manufacturers whose products appear to be targeted at children. Some local governments are even taking matters into their own hands. San Francisco recently became the first city to ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and flavored e-liquid, which is exactly the type of move that the study’s authors warn against.

“Restricting access to non-tobacco e-cigarette flavors may discourage smokers from attempting to switch to e-cigarettes,” conclude the researchers, who were led by first author Christopher Russell, Ph.D. deputy director of CSUR. The organization’s website states: “No research has been undertaken, or will be undertaken within CSUR, aimed at increasing the use of combustible tobacco products.”

The company that funded the study — Fontem Ventures, which owns blu — has recently expanded its line of non-combustible tobacco products to include flavors like Berry Cobbler and Mint Chocolate in addition to blu’s original tobacco and menthol flavors that it started making in 2009. The Lorillard Tobacco Company bought blu in 2012, and right after R.J. Reynolds bought Lorillard in 2015, the tobacco giant sold blu to Imperial Brands — the tobacco company of which Fontem Ventures is a wholly owned subsidiary.

Fontem Ventures, which owns the blu e-cigarette brand, funded research showing that fruity e-liquid can help people quit smoking. Perhaps not coincidentally, blu recently started selling fruity e-liquids.

Fontem Ventures

In short, the tobacco company that funded this paper, which presents evidence that fruity flavored vape juices are more likely to help smokers successfully switch to vaping than tobacco or menthol flavors, stands to gain financial benefit from the study’s findings. Inverse’s questions about the study were directed to a PR representative for Fontem Ventures.

“blu do have a commercial interest in understanding how adult smokers behave with regards to flavor and their preferences,” James Campbell, senior communications manager for Fontem Ventures, tells Inverse. “This peer-reviewed research is now in the public realm and we hope it helps all stakeholders, including regulators, understand the important role flavors play in the vaping category and hope it helps explain why vaping has become a popular alternative for adult smokers.”

The study’s authors also disclose that CSUR has received funding from e-cigarette manufacturers for the past three years to conduct research.

While funding sources with conflicts of interest don’t necessarily mean that the integrity of scientific research is compromised, it definitely means that the public should be skeptical of basing policies on it or gleaning broader conclusions from it. There are countless examples of industry-funded health research finding results that are friendly to the industry — even when the findings are untrue.

The trend is rampant in nutrition science, but the tobacco industry paved the way for the practice by using biased science to discredit claims that smoking was addictive or caused cancer. Earlier this year, British American Tobacco funded a study showing that heat-not-burn tobacco products are safe, despite other evidence showing that they still produce multiple toxic byproducts. It served as a reminder that just because research is published in a peer-reviewed journal does not mean it’s sound.

Team Vaping360

It’s become normal for an industry to fund its own market research to help understand consumer preferences and market trends, but when that research is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it must be amply scrutinized since publication in such a journal puts this research into the broader discussion about public health issues. Research published in peer-reviewed journals is often cited when politicians want to make new policies, but unless the research is given a critical eye, it may not be clear that it’s market research. By Fontem Ventures’ own admission, it intends to use the research to influence policy and shape the public conversation around vaping.

A company representative specifically cited the San Francisco ban in a press release, saying that the research suggests such bans could do harm by pushing people back to smoking. Despite their concern for adult smokers and vapers, though, the study’s authors don’t seem to have any ideas on how to make vaping less attractive to teens:

A tobacco products regulatory framework that balances adult smokers’ increasingly common preference to try to quit smoking by using e-cigarettes that do not taste like cigarettes, with measures that reduce the appeal and use of e-cigarettes by non-smokers and youth, may accelerate the US progress towards the end of the tobacco smoking epidemic that causes the premature death of approximately 480,000 Americans each year.

This line of reasoning, from the new study, strongly echoes the language of tobacco industry officials: In June, when the San Francisco ban passed, The New York Times reported that Jacob McConnico, a spokesman for R. J. Reynolds, called the vote “a setback for tobacco harm reduction efforts because it removes from the market many potentially reduced-risk alternatives.”

There’s nothing wrong with tobacco companies conducting market research to find out about their customers’ preferences and habits. But when they give it the veneer of science, it deserves a healthy dose of skepticism.

There’s actually a medical reason some people can vape out of their ears:

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