More than half of Canadian teen smokers use flavoured tobacco products, despite a national ban on some flavours, a new study finds.

The use of fruit, mint, chocolate and menthol and other flavours makes tobacco products more palatable and attractive to new users, especially young people, previous research suggests.

Flavoured Little Cigars 20101003

'Flavoured tobacco is a major threat to young people’s health,' said Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society. (Doug Ives/Canadian Press)

In Thursday’s issue of a journal published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers based in Waterloo, Ont., and Winnipeg discovered troubling patterns in the use of flavoured tobacco products from the 2010-11 Youth Smoking Surveys.

Flavoured tobacco products include cigarettes, pipes, little cigars or cigarillos, roll-your-own cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, water pipes or hookah and blunt wraps.

"Despite what many people think to be a ban on kid-friendly flavours, in fact more than half of our youth tobacco users are using a flavoured product,” said study co-author David Hammond, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo.

About 52 per cent of young tobacco users said they’d used flavoured products in the month before they filled in the survey at school.

The findings "were a surprise to me," Hammond said. "Thirty-two per cent of youth smokers reported menthol use. That's somewhere around five to six times more than adult use."

Tobacco companies skirt the law

In 2010, Canada's Tobacco Act was amended to prohibit the sale of cigarettes, little cigars or cigarillos that contain 1.4 grams or less of tobacco and blunt wraps (a tobacco wrapper that can be wrapped around cigarette tobacco) that contain additives, including most flavours.

The federal act does not cover cigarillos containing over 1.4 grams of tobacco, regular cigars, smokeless tobacco, sheesha (waterpipe tobacco) and other products. Some companies skirted the act by increasing the size of flavoured cigarillos slightly, researchers say.

Hammond said tobacco industry documents released through court cases show that fruit flavours are effective in attracting youth.

"What we have is a very effective recruitment tool for kids to start smoking, [one] that remains prevalent on the market today."

Menthol not only gives an icy flavour but also anesthetizes the throat to make it easier to inhale smoke, he said.

Menthol is also a flavour that was exempted from the federal government’s ban on flavoured tobacco products.

"If a country like the U.S., home to many of the world's biggest tobacco companies with 40 per cent market share, is thinking of banning menthol, it begs the question why Canada is dragging its feet."

Elsewhere, Brazil has banned menthol and the European Union is also considering it.

"This study provides compelling rationale to ban all flavours in all tobacco products," said Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society.

"Flavours such as mint, chocolate, vanilla, cherry and peach should not be allowed to be added to a product that is addictive and lethal," he added.

Cunningham said laws against flavoured tobacco have been adopted in Alberta and Manitoba and are awaiting proclamation. In Ontario, a bill was introduced and had all-party support, but was not passed by the time of the provincial election. It is too early to assess the effectiveness of the provincial approaches, he said.

The study was published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

The Youth Smoking Survey, which has a nationally representative sample, was funded by Health Canada and the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact.