The news reported on our sister site TobaccoIntelligence that 22nd Century Group is looking to launch its very-low-nicotine cigarettes (VLNCs) in Chicago and South Korea seems on the surface to have little to do with vaping.
VLNCs – combustible cigarettes containing almost no nicotine – are, after all, virtually the opposite of e-cigs.
But how they are received is worth watching for the vape industry, and all the more so if the category takes off. (So far 22nd Century’s VLNC – itself branded VLN, and recently accepted as a modified-risk tobacco product by the US Food and Drug Administration – is the only one being launched commercially.)
From a rational point of view, if VLNCs provide smokers with a pathway to permanent cessation, then great: that makes them at least as good as e-cigarettes, and conceivably even better.
However, if users treat VLNCs as long-term substitutes for higher-nicotine cigarettes, their contribution to harm reduction will be negligible.
In that scenario, VLNCs would be the “lights” of our time, seemingly healthier but in practice hardly less risky than full-strength cigarettes. And this could even be exacerbated if, as many critics assume, users of VLNCs will indulge in risk compensation by smoking far more in order to obtain the same level of nicotine, in the process also consuming much greater quantities of potentially toxic by-products.
To be fair, there is at least tentative evidence that smokers actually don’t compensate in this way even if nicotine yields are dramatically reduced. And of course if one subscribes to the school of thought that smoking habits are more behaviourally than chemically driven, that makes sense.
Anticipating what consumers really want and why
None of this will necessarily come to pass: it is more than possible that smokers simply won’t take up VLNCs in the first place.
For those who don’t care about reducing risk, or not enough or not yet, there’s no strong motivation to switch combustible brand anyway.
And for those who do want to reduce their risk, it’s very difficult objectively to see that VLNCs offer any benefit at all over vaping: you still get combustion by-products, you still get odour, you still get ash, and you don’t get the nicotine, which was at least part of the point of smoking in the first place. (Admittedly, you do get the sensory experience of smoking rather than vaping’s facsimile.)
But – and this is potentially a significant but for the vape sector – this assumes the perfectly rational consumers beloved by economists.
What if real, live consumers believe that reducing their nicotine intake in itself substantially reduces their risk? There is plenty of survey evidence from recent years suggesting that many believe exactly that, implying they might well opt for VLNCs in preference to vapour products that would almost certainly be less risky for long-term use, as opposed to a short-term cessation process.
This gulf between the perception of nicotine and the reality of where smoking risks lie is the threat that VLNCs pose to vapour. For now, it’s early days, and it’s a small issue. But it is one to watch, especially if regulators or medical professionals make the same assumption.
Would you like more information about VLNC products? You can now download for free our full regulatory briefing “A boost for very-low-nicotine cigarettes as US FDA grants modified risk order” using the form at the top of this page.
– Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff