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Arnold School of Public Health


Thrasher's research determines smokers perceive flavor capsule cigarettes to be less harmful and more appealing, usage is up

June 2, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

An international team of researchers led by Arnold School Associate Professor Jim Thrasher (Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior) has recently published some of the first research on one of the latest product innovations from the tobacco industry. Cigarettes with flavor capsules in the filter, which consumers can crush at any time to release a burst of flavor, are claiming significant market growth according to industry reports. Yet virtually no independent research has been conducted to assess the impact of this new product segment of the tobacco industry.

The study, published in Tobacco Control, collected information on more than 18,000 adult smokers’ usage and perceptions of cigarettes with flavor capsules in the filter. Participants from Mexico (5,723 respondents), Australia (5,864 respondents) and the United States (6,865 respondents) completed online surveys between 2012 and 2014. The researchers found that the use of flavor capsules increased during this period, with preference for flavor capsule brands highest among young adults. The study also found that smokers who preferred flavor capsule cigarettes were more likely than other smokers to view their brand as stylish, better tasting and less harmful than other cigarettes.

The appeal of these tobacco products, particularly for youth, have groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids concerned about flavor capsule cigarettes’ heightened ability to facilitate addiction. “The use of additives and filter technology in cigarettes misleads consumers by making them believe they are less harmful products when compared to regular cigarettes,” the Campaign writes on their site.

These concerns have led to a call-to-action from the authors and advocacy organizations for updated regulatory policies. “The use of flavor capsules in cigarette filters is a product innovation that has mostly escaped regulators but which is driving the growth of the tobacco market in many low- and middle-income countries; for example, flavor capsule cigarettes were first introduced into Mexico in 2011, and our data indicate that 14% of Mexican smokers now smoke those brands, which is phenomenal growth,” Thrasher says. “Increased use of flavor capsule cigarettes indicates an urgent need for effective product regulation as called for in Articles 9 and 10 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,” the Campaign adds.

Thrasher has some ideas for future research as well. “We need to continue looking at how the tobacco industry is using product design strategies to attract youth smokers and prevent smoking cessation amongst established smokers,” he says. Thrasher recommends that researchers assess how policies that standardize product design so that cigarettes are less different from one another may reduce the appeal of cigarettes and reduce consumer misperceptions that some combustible cigarette types are less harmful than others—when all combustible cigarettes are equally harmful. “Strengthening the research evidence on how flavors promote and sustain addiction is also a critical research area, as countries are beginning to develop regulations that prohibit additives to tobacco products,” he says.