With increasing e-cigarette use, flavored e-cigarettes and their appeal to youths have become a prominent concern. Advocacy groups and the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasize that nontobacco flavors may motivate youth vaping (ie, e-cigarette use) and increase conventional cigarette use (smoking).1–3 Given these concerns, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it will enforce sales restrictions on e-cigarette cartridges with flavors other than tobacco and menthol unless the product has obtained Food and Drug Administration premarket authorization. However, industry representatives claim that such flavors are critical to attracting adults who smoke and want to quit.4–6 The tension between these perspectives—nontobacco flavors as a risk to youth vaping initiation vs a boon for adult smoking cessation—remains unresolved. Because vaping’s effect on conventional smoking is central to its health influence, understanding how flavored e-cigarette use is related to smoking initiation and cessation is critical to guiding policy. Henceforth, flavored and unflavored e-cigarettes refer to nontobacco (eg, fruit, candy, menthol, mint) and tobacco flavors, respectively.
Randomized clinical trials show that e-cigarettes can aid in adult smoking cessation.7–11 These findings may apply to adolescents who smoke, although that evidence is less robust.12 Concurrently, a meta-analysis of research on e-cigarettes and youth smoking initiation finds “strong and consistent evidence of an association between initial e-cigarette use and subsequent cigarette smoking initiation.”13 A recent analysis using Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study data2 found that previous e-cigarette use was associated with a 4-fold increase in youths’ risk of ever using conventional cigarettes relative to youths who had not vaped.
The association between e-cigarette flavors and smoking is of particular interest. Qualitative evidence suggests young adults who smoke perceive flavors as helpful in cutting down conventional cigarette use.14 However, a cross-sectional analysis of middle and high school students who had never smoked found stronger intentions to try conventional cigarettes among those using flavored rather than unflavored e-cigarettes.15 Furthermore, new use of 1 tobacco product is more strongly associated with continued use of that product 1 year later for flavored rather than unflavored products.16,17 However, the association of flavors in one product with use of another remains unclear.
Bans on conventional cigarette flavors other than tobacco and menthol do not apply to e-cigarettes.18 In 2018, San Francisco banned sales of flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-cigarettes.19 In March 2019, Congresswoman Diana DiGette filed legislation to ban e-cigarette flavors that attract youths unless manufacturers proved they did not contribute to the increase in youth vaping.20 Michigan banned flavored e-cigarette sales that September, followed by New York and other states. Some of these bans have since been stayed by the courts. Similar legislation is under consideration at the federal level.
It remains unclear whether flavor bans benefit public health. Current evidence on how flavor bans affect smoking is limited to hypothetical choice experiments. These studies generally suggest that flavor options (beyond menthol and tobacco) affect both youth and adult consumers’ preferences for e-cigarettes.21 However, 1 study found that although interest in e-cigarettes among adults who smoke varied with flavor descriptors, interest among adolescents who do not smoke did not.22 A separate analysis of individuals aged 18 to 64 years who currently smoke or recently quit smoking concluded that a federal ban on e-cigarette flavors would increase smoking, whereas banning menthol conventional cigarettes would reduce smoking.23
To inform this debate, we used nationally representative, longitudinal data from the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study to estimate the association between e-cigarette flavor choice and smoking initiation among those who did not smoke at baseline as well as cessation among those who did smoke at baseline, separately for youths (12-17 years), emerging adults (18-24 years), and prime-age adults (25-54 years). Previous research with these data suggests that vaping may contribute to youth smoking initiation.2 This article expands on that work not only by assessing how vaping uptake relates to smoking among emerging and prime-age adults and youths but also by evaluating whether these associations differ between those using flavored vs unflavored e-cigarettes. We hypothesized that vaping uptake would be associated with increased youth and emerging adult initiation as well as increased emerging and prime-age adult cessation but that these associations would not vary by flavored vs unflavored e-cigarette use.