The disposable truth: what you see on the label may not always be what you get

A random sample from a random sample: Posh Pink Lemonade, Stick Strawberry Mango, Pop Blue Raz, Vapo Lemon Lime, HQD Banana Ice, Breeze Smoke Blueberry Mint. That selection gives a representative flavour of the list of 51 vaping products tested for a very interesting piece of recent research – but despite appearances, this study was nothing to do with flavours.

If you assumed it was, that is probably more than anything an indication of the current nature of the US e-cigarette market and the regulatory noise that surrounds it. At least the market in disposables, which is what’s under consideration here.

According to the researchers’ report, published last week in the journal BMC Public Health, although the disposables market has expanded rapidly – reaching almost a third of all US vapers and close to 45% of the country’s total e-cigarette market, ECigIntelligence data suggests – vaping surveys have so far concentrated mostly on e-liquids intended for refillable e-cigs. This one turns the spotlight on the accuracy of nicotine labelling on closed-system products.

And what the team found was that what you see (on the label) isn’t always what you get. In fact, if their sample is truly representative and their testing and statistical methods fair and accurate, it never is.

But before we get to those findings (which some readers may find disturbing), it’s worth pausing a moment to consider what the scientists, led by Scott Appleton of Appleton Regulatory Science Services in Chesterfield, Virginia, took as givens right from the start. In their own words: “Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) have significant potential to reduce the harm associated with smoking combustible tobacco cigarettes.

“A 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) concluded that e-cigarettes are far less harmful and have less dependence potential compared to tobacco burning cigarettes. The report also concluded that frequent use of e-cigarettes is associated with increased likelihood of smoking cessation.”

While that may seem like common sense – a statement of the obvious, even – to the vaping industry and its supporters, it is by no means the view of everyone in the regulatory, anti-tobacco community, either in the US or globally.

 

How much are you getting?

 

Less contentious, surely, is that “The full harm reduction potential of ENDS cannot likely be achieved unless the products are labeled properly so that consumers have accurate and non-misleading information about the product and its contents.” And it is a fact that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) places a high priority on assuring that consumer product labels are truthful and not false or misleading.

For many vapers, knowing how much nicotine you’re getting – and getting the right amount – will be crucial to the whole process of quitting smoking. While consumer confidence is an obvious requirement for any market to thrive.

All of which explains why it was a good idea to put a range of disposable vapes available online or in convenience stores to the test to see whether the nicotine concentration and total amount of e-liquid stated on the label matched what was actually in the device.

Stig Lush Ice and Stig Mango Bomb came closest, at just 0.69% and 1.16% under the stated concentration. Next best was Bidi Stick Zest, with a concentration 1.94% higher than stated. In a world where a 10% tolerance either way is generally accepted, those figures are pretty good.

At the other end of the scale, though, is the product that had only half the claimed nicotine concentration – and the e-cig that contained only 38% as much e-liquid as it said on the packet. And there were plenty not much better.

Overall, 23 of the 51 tested disposables deviated from the stated nicotine concentration by more than 10%, while 30 of the 39 assessed for e-liquid volume were more than 10% out. By either measure, a majority of tested products fell short of what was claimed.

Just nine out of 51 had a greater than stated nicotine concentration – up to 13.9% over – while the rest claimed a greater concentration than they really had. Almost half the entire sample (24 products) overstated concentration by more than 10%, 14 of them by more than a third, and 16 by more than a quarter.

 

The big picture

 

In the volume of e-liquid stakes, seven of 39 had more than stated (from 2.67% to 13.3% more), while the rest fell short by amounts ranging from 1% to 62.1%. One in three were found to contain less than 75% as much liquid as they claimed.

Put the two together and the picture looks even worse. While only one examined product actually stated the total quantity of nicotine it purported to contain, “Measured total nicotine amounts were lower than expected total nicotine amounts for all brands” (my italics).

In the most extreme case, one “extra-extra-large” vape contained less than a third as much nicotine as expected, while 11 of the 39 contained half as much or less. “Label discrepancies,” the researchers say, “may be caused by poor manufacturing quality control, losses during storage, or questionable business practices”. 

As they admit: “Because of the large number of e-cigarette brands currently available, the samples selected for this survey may not be representative of the overall market.” And further: “The technology and regulatory oversight of these products is evolving rapidly. Therefore, this survey could be outdated in a relatively short time as manufacturers modify their products to optimize consumer acceptance and meet regulatory compliance.”

What they don’t say, but which might be inferred from the discussion of their methods, is that their own process may not be quite as sharp as quoting percentages down to a decimal point should really require.

Nevertheless, the picture they paint suggests US purchasers of disposable vapes aren’t getting their money’s worth. Not in terms of nicotine, anyway. Which from some folks’ point of view, of course, may not be a bad thing.

Or, as the research team themselves conclude: “This study underscores the need for regulatory enforcement of manufacturing quality control and product labeling practices to optimize the harm reduction potential and consumer experience associated with the use [of] commercial disposable/non-chargeable e-cigarette[s].” That much seems undeniable.

– Aidan Semmens ECigIntelligence staff

Photo: Artem Podrez

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