Image: Lindsay Fox/Flickr
And here I thought cigarettes tasted either like tobacco or menthol. Or sometimes cloves. Nope, evidently you can deliver nicotine into your body masked by nearly 8,000 different flavors. Or at least, 8,000 different wacky names to describe the same general fruity or smoky taste.
A medical research team from the University of California, San Diego just took a deep dive into the online e-cig market to study how it's changed over the last two years, and to use those insights to inform how the controversial gadgets should be advertised and regulated in the future.
It found there are now some 460 vape brands selling their products online, and a total of 7,700 different flavors. And unlike when e-cigs first hit the market, the vape companies are less likely to compare their products to combustible cigs. Increasingly, e-cigs don't look or taste like cigarettes at all.
The researchers mined the web for a stretch of three months in 2012, and then again 18 months later, for most of 2013. In that 18-month gap, the market boomed; an average of 10 new brands and 200 new flavors sprung up each month.
"The number of brands and flavors is astonishing. The rate of growth is very unusual," study coauthor Sharon Cummins told me.
It makes sense. Unlike the early "cigalikes," often manufactured by big tobacco companies and preloaded with either menthol or tobacco flavor, second generation vapes have refillable tanks you can fill with the e-liquid of your choosing. Of course, the explosion of e-juice companies coincided with the shift to customizable mods with refillable tanks.
The report, published in the journal Tobacco Control, looked only at brands that sold their wares online, which represents roughly half of the vape market, the authors estimate. It's a business estimated to be worth $2 billion in the US alone, and "shows every sign of growing," they wrote. And the vast majority of that business is totally unregulated.
The researchers hoped their online probe—which searched 17 keywords in three search engines and reviewed the first 30 pages of each result—would uncover trends about how e-cigs are being used and sold to act as a benchmark for future policies.
They discovered, for example, that three-quarters of brands voluntarily listed the ingredients in the e-juice, even though it's not required by law. But, how do we know the ingredient list is accurate?
They discovered that new e-cig brands are "almost endlessly customizable" and less likely to market themselves as an alternative to analog smokes. If the industry is moving away from being associated with cigarettes, does that weaken the argument that allowing vaping would undermine the hard-won stigma against smoking?
They discovered 83 percent of brands offered a nicotine-free liquid option; does that help calm fears that e-cigs would act like a gateway to traditional cigarettes?
They discovered fruity flavors were most common, (offered by 84 percent of brands) followed by "dessert/candy" (80 percent), alcohol/drinks (77 percent), and then snacks/meals (25 percent). But are the wide variety of flavors appealing to kids?
It's a common criticism of digital nicotine delivery, and part of the rationale behind the US Food and Drug Administration's proposed rule to require juice companies get FDA approval before they can be marketed.
But the study points out—as I have before—that banning flavored juice would likely wind up just benefiting the big tobacco companies that don't offer flavor options and have the "financial backing" to go through the expensive approval process. If those brand dominate the market, it continued, it may actually increase users' chances of picking up the smoking habit, because those cigalike products are more similar to tobacco smokes than the newer vape mods.
"The existing vibrant e-cigarette market described in this study suggests that regulation based on insufficient scientific data might run the risk of only changing the market share of different e-cigarette brands rather than smoking prevalence itself," the authors wrote.
The report stopped short of claiming the proposed FDA regulations would wipe out smaller brands, but said there's no doubt it would benefit the brands with "strong financial backing," and that most of those are owned by big tobacco.
That said, it agreed with many points the FDA has proposed, such as listing ingredients, requiring any health claims be backed up by scientific research, and banning vaping indoors and in public places: "Based on the study results, the FDA's deeming laws seem a logical and fair step," Cummins said.