Research reveals sweet appeal of e-cigarettes

Sarah Bloodworth

UT researchers recently found that some people pick up electronic cigarettes not for the nicotine, but to satisfy their sweet tooth. 

Researchers at UT’s Health Science Center in Houston, in collaboration with the Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science, found that e-cigarette flavors, especially sweeter varieties, are more popular among people between the ages of 18 and 29 than among older adults.

The research not only revealed younger people’s preference for e-cigarette flavors, but also found that 77.8 percent of youth said they would stop using e-cigarettes if they had no flavor. The findings of the study, which sampled around 2,500 participants aged 12 to 17 and around 4,300 participants aged 18 to 29, were published in the Tobacco Regulatory Science journal in April.

Melissa Harrell, associate professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Austin and researcher on the project, said the studies show e-cigarette users are different than cigarette smokers. 

“In our studies, most kids and adults don’t pick up e-cigarettes to quit smoking,” Harrell said. “Literatures shows that most move on to conventional cigarettes afterwards, which concerns us. (E-cigarette users) aren’t interested in a tobacco flavor but in flavors like ‘unicorn smoke.’ It’s fun and enticing to them, and it simply tastes good.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, little is known about the health effects of e-cigarettes. Harrell said this is concerning the scientific community and the FDA, especially due to the popularity of the devices among younger populations.

In 2009, the FDA banned flavored cigarettes, citing a special appeal to children. In 2016, the FDA finalized a rule extending their regulations over all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, yet their flavors continue to go unregulated, partly due to the unknown health effects, according to Alexandra Loukas, program director of Health Behavior & Health Education at UT. Loukas added that the FDA is currently working on updating its regulations.

“E-cigarette companies don’t have to report what is inside an e-cigarette … until it is regulated,” Loukas said. “We don’t really know what the effects are, particularly because we don’t even know what chemicals are being used. Regulation will provide reports of the vaping liquid (contents.)”

Harrell said she hopes this research will help lead the FDA’s decision to regulate e-cigarette flavors and increase public understanding of e-cigarette use. The researchers will continue surveying the e-cigarette users into adulthood to analyze addiction rates.

“We see declining trends in cigarette use overall, but that may reverse in the future given that e-cigarettes are becoming more popular,” Harrell said. “It’s all a cause of concern, so we want to reverse this process over time.”