Richmonder Ryan McCreary was graduating high school when vaping became a fad. Like many modern smokers looking to transition, he spent a year vaping as an alternative, using a small battery-powered vape pen to get his tobacco fix. He acknowledges the youth appeal of e-cigarettes, especially the flash-drive-sized Juuls, but argues that it isn’t the flavors, it’s the culture.
From college kids to high schoolers, it was a trickle-down effect, driven by popular Instagram accounts and well-known YouTube stars. “Kids do it because it’s mainstream. It’s not about the flavors,” McCreary said.
Still, the FDA has begun an inquiry into the flavored liquids–e-liquids–that vape pens heat up and turn into vapor. Like the 2009 ban on flavored cigarettes enacted by Congress, regulators say that flavors like cherry and chocolate appeal to youth, pointing to the extremely negative health impacts smoking has on young lungs.
Many in the industry fear a similar ban is coming for vaping. In Richmond, the Global Vaping Standards Association has created a national coalition to get ahead of regulators and fight any such ban.
The non-profit created the #FightForFlavor campaign after the FDA opened an inquiry earlier this year into flavored e-liquids. The current inquiry is seeking comments on vaping flavors, an early phase that might lead to a full ban or other regulation.
The association’s executive director, Maggie Gowen, saw this as a crucial moment to push back against regulators. She’s built an industry coalition of vape companies and launched a campaign to encourage adult vapers to share their personal comments on e-liquid flavored products with the FDA.
The group argues that the flavors play a crucial role in helping adults transition from cigarettes to vaping products. “As an industry, we thought it was extraordinarily important for vapers that use flavoring to submit their comments to the FDA in regards to how flavors helped transition them,” Gowen said. “We see it all the time in the industry.”
A Richmond e-liquid manufacturer, AVAIL, the largest e-liquid or vape retailer in the US, has worked closely with Gowen on the campaign. While much of the #FightForFlavor campaign is about customer advocacy, AVAIL has been submitting scientific studies to the FDA to lobby for greater understanding of the importance of flavors.
“They’ve done extensive consumer research that shows the journey,” Gowen said. “What you’ll traditionally see…a smoker will come in, they’re comfortable, they know the tobacco flavor, the menthol flavor, they’ll quite often stick with those flavors for maybe a month. And then when they’re not smoking as much anymore, their taste buds are reinvigorated, and all of a sudden they don’t like tobacco and menthol anymore.”
Consumers will start graduating toward sweet and savory flavors—of which there are hundreds, from peppermint to coffee, to blueberry. A short walk around the VCU campus quickly becomes a foray into sweet-smelling vaporous clouds, and almost any trip to Carytown includes being engulfed in a cotton candy scented fog.
“There’s hundreds of e-liquid manufacturers and hundreds of thousands of vape retailers that this would greatly affect. Not to mention, helping product these adult vapers who have transitioned from tobacco,” Gowen said. “What is that going to do? Are they going to revert back to smoking again because they can’t get their flavors?”
The primary concern of the FDA seems to be the risk of youth addiction, and it’s easy to see why. Not only do vape products have enticing flavors—like key lime pie, orange sticky bun, or “Candy Crush”—but new vape technology like Juuls makes the e-cigarette devices incredibly easy to conceal and afford.
Juuls now make up more than half of the e-cigarette retail market sales in America and have become commonplace in high schools and universities nationwide. Though initially created to help adults transition from smoking, the rise of the Juul among minors is a high-traffic topic in recent publications.
Gowen said the association is combatting FDA concerns about youth appeal by targeting adult smokers, and doing so responsibly.
“We have all types of age-gating that is part of policy and procedure in the company. As far as marketing practices, everyone adheres to strict marketing practices and guidelines,” Gowen said. Despite the popularity of Juuls and e-cigarettes among young smokers, Gowen maintained that it was not due to industry advertising. She said, “You look at the marketing and the youth appeal is not there.”
The coalition includes industry partners such as AVAIL Vapor, Charlie’s Chalk Dust, Mama’s, and SMOK. They seek to engage adult vapers with education and information, reaching out to retailers across the US to spread the message.
“The industry leaders of this coalition are all committed to advocating for vapers’ rights and their right to choose flavored e-liquids while also following strict regulations to keep vape products out of the hands of minors,” Gowen said. “It’s been wonderful working with these companies. We all joined together.”
The thoroughline of the campaign is to get smokers away from traditional tobacco products. Public Health England studies have found that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than tobacco. And though popular public misconception is that nicotine is causing cancer, nicotine is only the addictive substance–it’s the tar in cigarettes, along with various other chemicals, that make smoking so dangerous.
“Because the FDA has the regulatory authority over the industry now, we cannot make any smoking sensation claims or health claims,” Gowen said, in response to a question about whether vaping is actually healthier. “But we hear customer testimonials on a daily basis.”
“We’ve seen an extraordinary response,” Gowen said. Public comment on the FDA website has reached over 520,000. “It’s really great seeing everyone join together with this unified voice. At the end of the day, we are all working toward the same goal.”