Expert Commentary

Banning e-cigarette flavors could boost cigarette sales

E-cigarettes come in over 7,000 flavors. If the flavors were banned, as American regulators wish, more people are likely to smoke traditional cigarettes.


Smoking costs the American economy over $300 million annually, according to government figures. Each year, cigarettes kill almost half a million people prematurely; another 40,000 die from exposure to second-hand smoke.

So e-cigarettes might be cause for celebration. From a harm-reduction perspective, “vape pens,” as they’re also known, may be a good alternative to what researchers call “combustible cigarettes.” They do not emit second-hand smoke and may even help smokers quit.

Yet as e-cigarettes have exploded in popularity, regulators have grown concerned about the way they are marketed in over 7,000 flavors. The Food and Drug Administration tried and failed to ban the flavors in 2016, arguing that they appeal to children and that the long-term effect of e-cigarettes remains unknown.

A ban, however, could have unintended consequences, finds a 2017 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

John Buckell of Yale University and his team surveyed 2,031 adult American smokers and recent quitters about their preferences. Their findings present the net impact of different policy proposals, such as banning e-cigarette flavors, banning menthol cigarettes (the only flavor of traditional cigarettes allowed by American law) or banning both:

  • To reduce the use of combustible cigarettes the most, policymakers should ban only menthol cigarettes. This would cut the number of combustible smokers by 4.8 percent; 1.3 percent would stop smoking altogether and e-cigarette use would rise by 3.5 percent.
  • To reduce the use of all cigarette types, policymakers should ban both menthol cigarettes and e-cigarette flavors. The number of combustible cigarette smokers would rise by 2.7 percent, yet overall the number of smokers would fall 5.2 percent.
  • By contrast, the FDA’s proposed ban on all e-cigarette flavors would increase the number of combustible smokers: 8.3 percent of e-cigarette smokers would switch to combustible smokes and 3 percent would quit altogether.

Check out other research on public health and smoking.

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