As It Happens

Getting rid of most e-cigarette flavours didn't hurt Juul sales: study

Fans of Juul’s sweeter vaping products, such as mango and crème brûlée, appear to have switched to other varieties including mint and tobacco flavours, according to a recent study conducted by the American Cancer Society.

Young people appear to have 'simply switched' to menthol and tobacco flavoured e-cigarettes, says scientist

Getting rid of most flavours did not stop people from buying e-cigarettes from Juul, a new study has found. (Photo illustration/Mike Blake/Reuters)

Transcript

Mango, crème brûlée, fruit medley, and cucumber may sound like ice cream flavours, but they were all e-cigarette flavours sold, until recently, by vaping giant Juul.

Flavoured e-cigarette pods have been the focus of intense scrutiny on the vaping industry. Critics say the flavoured offerings help entice youth to pick up a vaping habit.

In response to that criticism, Juul said in January it would voluntarily stop selling the flavoured cartridges to Canadian distributors, nearly two years after withdrawing them from stores in the U.S.

But a new study from researchers at the American Cancer Society suggests that taking away these sweeter flavours may not be enough to persuade people of any age to stay away from vaping.

"They left mint, menthol and tobacco flavours on the shelves, and they continued selling flavours like mango, crème brûlée, cucumber and fruit medley on the Internet," lead author Alex Liber, senior scientist with the American Cancer Society's economic and health policy research program, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Liber says the company was facing pressure from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to do something about rising rates of under age e-cigarette use in the United States at that time.

Brief dip in sales

Published Friday in the American Journal of Public Health, the study showed that when the company voluntarily withdrew its sweeter flavours from store shelves in the U.S. in November 2018, overall sales dipped only briefly then continued to grow.

But while the percentage of sales of these fruity flavours fell to just 9.1 per cent of the company's overall revenue between November 2018 and April 2019, mint and menthol flavours grew from 33 per cent to 62.5 per cent in that same time period. Tobacco flavour rose from 16.6 per cent to 22.3 per cent.

In about two months, sales bounced back to their level before the self-imposed ban, then kept on growing throughout 2019 until the fall, when reports of vaping-related illnesses started to take a slice off of e-cigarette sales, Liber said. 

"The reason that we think that this happened is that its old fruit purchasing customers — who numbered among them quite a few young people — simply switched to the new Juul flavours that were popular at the time, which seems to have been their mint flavour." 

While other smaller brands, most notably NJOY, have since captured some of the fruit-flavour market it abandoned, Juul — of which 35 per cent is owned by Altria, parent company of PhillipMorrisUSA — captured 91 per cent of the growth in mint, menthol and tobacco flavoured vaping products, the study found.

Canada needs to do more, says advocate 

Liz Scanlon, senior manager for public affairs with Heart and Stroke Ontario, said the findings show that it'll take more than a flavour ban to address youth vaping in Canada.

"We definitely need to look at restricting access to flavours for sure. We need to look at taxation policy. We need to look at marketing," Scanlon said. "There's a whole range of policy measures that are going to need to reduce youth use of these products."

Juul products are displayed at a smoke shop in New York. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

She says Juul was much slower to restrict its own flavour offerings in Canada, in part because it hasn't faced quite the same scrutiny here.

"The federal government really hasn't stepped up to the plate on this at a national level."

The upper limit of nicotine concentration allowed in vaping products sold here is three times what's permitted in the European Union and other jurisdictions, she said.

Instead, what Canada has is a "piecemeal" approach by the provinces, with some, such as Nova Scotia, imposing an outright ban on all flavours apart from tobacco, and others, including Ontario, allowing mint and menthol in ordinary stores and all flavours in specialty shops.

Scanlon said some of vape flavour offerings are "blatant" attempts to entice young people — "stuff that sounds like it's aimed more for my eight-year-old as opposed to, you know, a 45-year-old who is trying to quit smoking." 

They come for the flavours, but stay for the nicotine 

She said the flavours entice kids to start vaping, but the nicotine is what hooks them. And that's disappointing for advocates who were successful at reducing cigarette smoking among youth over two decades.

"We had 20 years of really good policy that made cigarettes less accessible. They were not marketed at all. They were more expensive because taxes were going up," Scanlon said.

Liber said he and his colleagues in the U.S. are concerned about where youth vaping is headed.

"Scientists are really trying to puzzle through how worried we should be about young people who are now addicted to nicotine through vaping, switching to cigarettes in the future," he said. 

"We're paying as much attention as we can to. first, get down the rates of youth vaping, and second, try to prevent all of these young people who have taken up vaping from switching to cigarettes, which we know are the most dangerous consumer product on the market."


Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview with Alex Liber produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that Juul was owned by Imperial Tobacco. In fact, it is a private company of which Altria, parent company of PhillipMorrisUSA and other tobacco brands, holds a 35 per cent stake.
    Apr 21, 2020 11:56 AM ET

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