The dangers of flavored tobacco are clear: It’s appealing to young people, makes it easier to start using tobacco and harder to quit. In other words, tobacco flavors are one of the most effective tools the tobacco industry has to hook the next generation.
That’s why the industry fights flavor bans or finds ways to work around them. If flavors aren’t there to cover up the unpleasant taste, smell and sensation of tobacco for young or new smokers, fewer people will become lifelong tobacco users. That means less strain on health systems and economies. Less loss and grief for families and communities. But to tobacco companies, it means only one thing: less profits.
Why the industry loves tobacco flavors
Getting young people hooked on its products is integral to the survival of the tobacco industry. If there were no new tobacco users, tobacco companies would go out of business when current users either quit or die from using their products. So the industry targets young people as “replacement smokers”—a term actually used by an R.J. Reynolds employee in 1984. While that phrase was uttered almost 40 years ago, the tactic of targeting children and young people is still very much in use today.
Many current tobacco users report that the first tobacco product they ever tried was flavored. And data suggests that those who experiment with flavored tobacco are more likely to become lifelong tobacco users. In short, flavors are often a path from experimentation to regular use—one which the industry won’t give up without a fight.
How the industry fights bans or finds ways to work around them
As of 2021, about 40 countries have implemented or plan to implement policies around flavors to protect young people, in line with recommendations in the global health treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In response, the industry takes action to protect its profits.
Knowing that the lack of flavors could reduce the number of young people who start using tobacco, tobacco companies lobby against bans before they go into effect. In 2013, Chile’s Ministry of Health tried to introduce a ban on menthol cigarettes, but the ban was rejected after tobacco industry lobbying. When a new bill to ban menthol was introduced in 2015, British American Tobacco threatened to withdraw its operations in the country.
Tobacco companies also fight bans after they’ve been approved. Just two days after voters in the state of California in the United States voted to ban flavored tobacco, R.J. Reynolds filed a federal lawsuit to block the ban from going into effect. (The Supreme Court denied the company’s request.)
Flavor bans often follow one of two approaches: Governments can ban all flavor additives, or they can ban “characterizing flavors.” With a ban on “characterizing flavors,” tobacco companies can still include flavoring additives as long as the user cannot perceive them—though evidence suggests these additives can still make tobacco more palatable.