How the FDA’s assault on flavours, even menthol, could give real tobacco an edge

Flavours continue to be the main target of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US when it comes to novel nicotine products, it seems; witness, for example, the recent rejection of marketing applications from RJ Reynolds Vapor Company for menthol-flavoured Vuse e-cigarettes. (Reynolds is appealing against that decision.)

While the FDA’s hostility toward some of the more outré and seemingly kid-focused flavours is really not surprising, its firmness in applying the same principles to menthol is telling. Whether or not minors use menthol, it is very clearly true that many American adults do; and with a ban on menthol combustibles on the cards, allowing menthol-flavoured vapes could look like a golden opportunity to migrate large numbers of adult smokers out of smoking and into vaping.

But, rightly or wrongly, the FDA’s refusal to make an exception signals just how much the danger of flavours outweighs the benefits of vapour in its judgement.

Meanwhile, a less obviously noteworthy FDA decision – to allow the marketing of three tobacco-flavoured HeatStick consumable products for the Iqos heated tobacco system from Philip Morris International (PMI) – at much the same time as the negative Vuse verdict is a reminder of the role that flavours, or rather their absence, might play in the future fortunes of the reduced-risk nicotine market.

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    While non-tobacco flavours do exist for heated tobacco, tobacco flavour itself is much more dominant, inevitably given the technology. And similarly, although third-party consumables do exist, they are far less widespread than e-liquids from small independent manufacturers are in the e-cigarette market. As a result, the huge range of flavours available for vapour is not seen in the heated tobacco market, and is unlikely to be. (Though the FDA did, oddly, allow the marketing of menthol HeatSticks back in 2019, a decision it might now be regretting…)

    The upshot of this is that flavours are for many users a relative advantage of e-cigs over heated tobacco. But if the FDA (or indeed a regulatory agency in another country) manages to remove flavours from the vapour market and of course that would require a degree of enforcement we haven’t seen yet that advantage disappears.

    Could that tilt the balance in favour of heated tobacco? After all, if a former smoker can only get tobacco flavour anyway, mightn’t they prefer to get it from actual tobacco?

    – Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Couleur

    Barnaby Page

    Editorial director
    Before joining ECigIntelligence in early 2014 as one of its first employees, Barnaby had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and online services, working in Canada, the US and the Middle East as well as his current British location. He has edited publications covering fields including technology and the advertising industry, and was launch editor of the first large daily online news service in the British regional media. Barnaby also writes on classical music and film for a number of publications. Barnaby manages the editorial and reporting teams and works closely with the analyst teams, to ensure that all content meets high standards of quality and relevance. He also writes for the site occasionally, mostly on science-related issues, and is a member of the Association of British Science Writers.