In the great e-cig flavours battle, there’s evidence to support every point of view

E-liquid flavours, loved by manufacturers, retailers and vaping advocates, hated by legislators, have for some time been a major battleground in the e-cigarette wars. On one side, the firmly-held belief that they entice youth into vaping. On the other, the equally fervently argued view that they are vital in weaning smokers off their deadly habit.

There even seems to be a fairly broad acceptance that both views are true leaving a seemingly unsolvable conundrum over how to reduce e-cigs’ appeal to the young while retaining their function in adult smoking cessation.

Now, however, comes a piece of scientific research that suggests one of these shibboleths may be wrong, however loudly and often its believers proclaim it.

Using MRI scanners to monitor brain activity during vaping, researchers at Penn State College of Medicine in the US found that unflavoured e-cigs mimicked the smoking experience better than flavoured ones, and might therefore be more effective in helping smokers off tobacco.

Before we go further, let’s get the caveats out of the way.


Unexpected finding


Brain science may have come a long way in a short time, but identifying what’s going on someone else’s head is still a fairly rudimentary and imprecise business. Among the estimated 34m cigarette smokers in the US, this study considered a mere nine hardly a statistically significant sample and all of those were women. Not for nothing does the report in the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology call the project “a pilot study” and remark that more extensive trials are needed.

Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing first step along an experimental path that could profoundly influence thinking about e-cigs in both the pro and anti camps.

The researchers, led by assistant professor of psychiatry Andrea Hobkirk, admitted it was “contrary to our hypothesis” that while they found vaping strawberry-vanilla engaged the brain’s taste region, it did less for the reward region than unflavoured vapes.

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    And the tentative conclusion?

    “We found that for smokers who had never really used e-cigarettes before, the flavor did not make the experience more rewarding for them, at least in terms of what we saw in the brain. This could suggest that, potentially, smokers do not necessarily need these flavors to make the transition from a combustible cigarette to an e-cigarette.”

    Replicate that result and that conclusion on a bigger scale a much bigger scale, and among people of different genders, ages and background and it just might shift the whole battleground.


    Meanwhile, out in the ‘real world’


    Hang on a moment, though; here comes another caveat. Another recently reported study a rather larger one, involving nearly 18,000 survey respondents set out to examine the relative effects of flavoured and unflavoured e-cigs on both smoking cessation and smoking uptake (the fabled “gateway effect”).

    And the conclusion? “In this study, adults who vaped flavored e-cigarettes were more likely to subsequently quit smoking than those who used unflavored e-cigarettes.”

    No sign of a “may”, a “potentially”, or a “not necessarily” there. Furthermore, this survey, published by the JAMA Network, suggests other vaping flavours are no more likely than tobacco flavour to tempt young people to smoke.

    So, it’s battle on again, then. And whichever side you’re on, there’s a piece of research out there to support your view.

    Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Maria Polna

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    Aidan Semmens