Background While fruit, candy and alcohol characterising flavours are not allowed in cigarettes in the USA, other flavoured tobacco products such as smokeless tobacco (ST) continue to be sold. We investigated tobacco manufacturers' use of flavoured additives in ST products, the target audience(s) for flavoured products, and marketing strategies promoting products by emphasising their flavour.
Methods Qualitative analysis of internal tobacco industry documents triangulated with data from national newspaper articles, trade press and internet.
Results Internally, flavoured products have been consistently associated with young and inexperienced tobacco users. Internal studies confirmed that candy-like sweeter milder flavours (eg, mint, fruit) could increase appeal to starters by evoking a perception of mildness, blinding the strong tobacco taste and unpleasant mouth feel; or by modifying nicotine delivery by affecting product pH.
Discussion Similar to cigarettes, flavoured ST is likely to encourage novices to start using tobacco, and regulations limiting or eliminating flavours in cigarettes should be extended to include flavoured ST products.
- Tobacco industry documents
- Non-cigarette tobacco products
- Tobacco industry
- Advertising and Promotion
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Smokeless tobacco (ST) products include moist snuff (including portion pouch products such as snus), chewing tobacco, dry snuff, and loose leaf or scrap. As cigarette sales in the USA continue to decline, sales of moist snuff (the most popular type of ST) increased by 65.6% between 2005 and 2011.1 The growth in ST sales may be due in part to flavoured products: sales of flavoured moist snuff products increased 72.1% between 2005 and 2011 and contributed to ∼60% of the growth in the moist snuff category overall.1 Currently, Skoal, the most popular ST brand among youth, offers over 20 line extensions with flavourings.2–4 Flavoured products tend to contain lower levels of free nicotine and pH,3 ,5 features of ‘starter’ products. Therefore, the abundance of flavoured products raises concerns about youth initiation.6
Research on the tobacco industry's use of flavours in ST to attract new users is limited. Prior studies used previously secret tobacco industry documents to determine whether tobacco manufacturers used flavours in cigarettes to promote initiation,7 how nicotine content in ‘starter’ smokeless brands was manipulated to appeal to novices,5 or developed ST products to encourage initiation of smokeless use among smokers.8 A recent study by Brown et al9 found that the same flavour chemicals that are used in popular brands of candy, such as Jolly Rancher candies or Life Savers, are used to engineer fruit-flavoured tobacco products. An analysis of candy and tobacco products found some tobacco products contained higher levels of flavour chemicals than candy.9
The 2009 US Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act prohibited candy, fruit, alcohol and spice characterising flavours in cigarettes, as flavours make cigarettes easier to smoke and increase youth appeal.10–13 ST was not included in this regulation. Additional research is needed to better understand the role of flavours in smokeless products. We analysed previously secret tobacco industry documents from RJ Reynolds (RJR), Brown & Williamson (B&W), Philip Morris (PM), British American Tobacco, Lorillard, US Smokeless Tobacco Company (USST, formerly US Tobacco Company) related to the development and marketing of flavoured smokeless products (including moist snuff, snus, loose leaf and chewing tobacco) in the USA to answer the following research questions: How and why did tobacco manufacturers use flavoured additives in ST products?; Who were the target audiences for flavoured ST products?; What was the function of flavours in ST, and how did the use of flavours affect ST patterns of use?; What marketing strategies were used to promote flavoured ST brands? Flavour may be defined as the blend of taste and smell sensations evoked by a substance in the mouth.14 For this study, we included any natural or artificial candy, fruit, alcohol, herb (eg, menthol, wintergreen) and spice flavourings or substances added to tobacco to alter or enhance its taste, including ‘sweet’ or sugar flavouring.
We searched tobacco industry document archives from the University of California, San Francisco Truth Tobacco Documents Library, between November 2010 and April 2011. The searches were repeated and extended between August 2011 and August 2014. Initial search terms included ‘flavour’, ‘flavour*’, ‘other tobacco products’, ‘flavoured smokeless’, ‘new users’, ‘starters’, ‘youth’, etc. These searches yielded thousands of documents; those related to flavoured ST use among youth and new users were selected. Searches were focused using standard techniques.15 Further ‘snowball’ searches for contextual information were conducted using product types, brand names, document locations, dates and reference (Bates) numbers. The analysis was based on a collection of 432 documents. We reviewed the documents, organised them chronologically and thematically, and identified common themes. Information from industry documents was triangulated with outside sources, including a review of brand websites between 2012 and 2013, materials archived at the Rutgers Trinkets and Trash website, and a convenience sample of 12 news stories in trade press and national newspapers.
Early interest in flavoured smokeless tobacco products
Smokeless products with flavours such as peach, apple, honeydew, strawberry, pineapple, honeysuckle, champagne and prune date back to the 1870s.16 In 1934, the first wintergreen-flavoured chewing tobacco product (Skoal moist snuff) was introduced by USST.17 ,18 In the 1960s, flavours became more important as USST recognised that 58% of ST users were 55 years of age or older, and aimed to revive the declining smokeless market by targeting young males.19 An article entitled The Puzzling, Irksome, Exciting Youth Market (1973) published in a USST internal/external magazine stated, “…youth is such a big market that no business, geared to continuous growth—and what business isn't?—can ignore it…How can you afford to ignore a consumer segment, when it is multiplying two-and-a-half times as fast as the rest of the population?”20
Louis F Bantle, then vice president for marketing at USST, said in a 1968 marketing meeting: “We must sell the use of tobacco in the mouth and appeal to young people…we hope to start a fad”.21 One strategy for attracting new customers was to conduct experimental studies to test new flavours—‘a vital sales factor’,21 ,22 and research conducted for USST found that communications stressing taste, flavour and freshness were ‘most successful in inviting trial’ of ST.23
In addition, researchers at USST and at RJR tobacco company (which produced smokeless products at the time) recognised that flavours could increase appeal to initiates by helping decrease strong tobacco taste (or ‘bite’), unpleasant mouth feel (burning or irritation of the lip and gum) and decreasing saliva flow resulting in the need to expectorate, nausea, and floating or dispersion in the mouth.21 ,24–28 In 1966, FJ Triest, President of the Fries & Brother Flavour Specialists Company also recognised that sugar additives and flavourings could increase palatability to novices, and stated in tobacco trade press that flavourings, such as vanilla, peach, apricot, licorice and cocoa, could act as blinding agents against ‘objectionable off-flavours’.29 ,30
USST research indicated that new users preferred flavours that were milder or mellow, minty, sweet,31–36 and other tobacco companies confirmed these findings.27 ,37 ,38 For example, a B&W focus group study demonstrated linkage between flavours and initiation:
Using flavoured brands or “candy dips” was likened to sucking on a candy or a Lifesaver by experienced users; and was considered to be characteristic of beginners; such “candy” flavours were “okay for little kids” but inappropriate for those who wanted a “full, strong taste” of tobacco. 27
Flavoured smokeless tobacco products
Table 1 summarises major flavoured ST products developed, starting with USST's 1967 introduction of raspberry flavoured Happy Days40 ,45 ,85 which was launched with “outstanding initial success…especially among younger men”.40 USST added mint-flavoured Happy Days followed in 1970–1971, and this product showed consistent growth through the 1970s, with greatest acceptance among 18–30 years old.86 ,87 The advertising stated it was “for you, fellows, just starting out”; and “mild and flavourful…just right for new users”, “a great way to start going smokeless”.44 ,46 ,48 ,88 In addition to youth appeal, the key strategic functions of flavourings in ST are summarised in table 2.
USST subsequently collaborated with Swedish Tobacco Company in the early 1970s using a joint company, United Scandia International,50 ,51 ,89 ,90 to develop a new mildly flavoured product for ‘new users, mainly cigarette smokers, age group 15–35’.51 The product was also packaged in ‘paper bags’/portions for easier use.51 The targeted groups for this product included male and female smokers and “new users…mainly young consumers who have not made their choice between different ways of using nicotine…”91 In 1973–1974, USST launched this mint-flavoured product branded as ‘Good Luck’.52 The marketing campaign strategy emphasised innovation, convenience and promoted a sense of social belonging to address psychological factors important to young consumers.24 ,91 Advertisements explained: “the pouch works like a tea bag; the flavour seeps out, but the tobacco stays in place in the mouth”.42 Free samples of Good Luck were distributed to encourage trial and conversion,92 and intended to serve as a ‘gradual introduction’ to USST's ‘more traditional moist ST products’.93
In 1979, Conwood tobacco company introduced, wintergreen-flavoured Hawken, which reached more new users than Happy Days, including some as young as 9 years old.54 In response, USST re-evaluated Happy Days and Good Luck flavour, packaging and even the brand names, which the company felt failed to project a masculine exciting image appealing to younger users.25 In 1983, USST launched ‘Skoal Bandits’ targeted towards new users, mainly cigarette smokers.89 Skoal Bandits was mint-flavoured and packed in single-portion pouches, and flavour was ‘one of the key concepts in this new product’ to ease initiation and appeal to young adults seeking novelty.55 ,56 ,59 ,60 ,94
USST continued to introduce new flavoured pouched smokeless products to appeal to novices, including wintergreen-flavoured Skoal Long Cut moist snuff in 18495 and Skoal Flavour Packs in 1995,59 which added mint flavouring and flavour enhancers to the pouch material itself (in addition to the flavoured tobacco).61
To help attract new tobacco users, USST developed a ‘graduation strategy’ that has been described elsewhere, increasing nicotine levels from low ‘starter’ brands to high nicotine brands for experienced users.5 In addition to controlling nicotine levels, USST used flavours in the graduation strategy, describing two parallel tracks: one using mint-flavoured and wintergreen-flavoured brands, and one with sweeter, ‘fruity’ and milder ‘natural’ brands. USST's starter products generally fit in one of the two flavour categories: mint/wintergreen and natural/sweet flavour (eg, Skoal Bandits Mint and Skoal Bandits Natural).96
In early 1980s, after the success of Skoal Bandits and other ST products among younger users, cigarette companies considered entering the moist snuff category, recognising high rate among young males.97 RJR marketing research suggested that ‘candy’ brands were more highly flavoured and milder than Skoal, and were ‘generally designed for the new/novice category user’:
Profile data shows these “candy” brands as being less developed than Skoal / Copenhagen among 18–24 users: The reason for this may be that many 18–24 year olds enter the category via the candy brands, but switch/graduate rapidly (i.e. within months) to Skoal/Copenhagen to obtain greater product delivery and more masculine reinforcement. Skoal/Copenhagen users do speak condescendingly toward those who use “candy” brands, so there is real motivation and peer pressure for new/novice users to graduate to Skoal or Copenhagen as quickly as possible.97
To compete with Skoal and Copenhagen in reaching young users, in 1983, RJR launched projects Wet Snuff Skoal (WSS) and Wet Snuff Copenhagen (WSC) to develop competitor products.98 RJR also considered developing a mint-flavoured product to compete with Hawken.99 However, RJR failed to develop an acceptable competitor moist snuff product, and its Specialty Tobacco Products Brands Division was dissolved in February 1985.100 In 2001, RJR conducted focus groups to understand smokers increasing use of ST (table 1), and RJR acquired Conwood ST company in 2006.101
A 1971 B&W memo noted USST's initial success with flavoured moist snuff among younger users.71 B&W subsequently attempted to develop a bourbon-flavoured snuff product aimed at younger inexperienced snuff users,71 ,72 but the company had difficulty with development and the product was not introduced. However, B&W continued to conduct research on smokeless use,38 and found links between flavours and initiation similar to other companies. In 1985, B&W launched Project Rainbow to develop an entry product for the moist snuff category.74 ,102 The wintergreen-flavoured product was intended to project a strong masculine brand image and not to taste too much like ‘candy’.103 The name DiamondBack was selected to project a strong masculine image that could potentially appeal to young men to compete with wintergreen Skoal.26 However, the product failed, and internally the company concluded that younger males were more likely to show the ‘Marlboro phenomenon’, a preference for established high-profile brands.76
P M USA also considered developing a moist snuff product to benefit from the growing trend of cigarette smokers switching to smokeless products, and noted the young demographics of moist snuff users.104 PM planning documents discussed interest in identifying product features that would induce consumer trial, and determining if they should pursue a ‘sweet or mature taste?’105 PM marketing analysts also noted in 1989 that USST and Pinkerton were developing ST with ‘more of a cigarette flavour, aimed at switching consumers from smokers to chewers’ particularly when in smoke-free environments.106
Other functions of flavours
Starting in the mid-1980s USST began to add increasing numbers of flavoured line extensions to its popular brands,82 and in a 1995 trade press article, USST President Robert D Rothenberg said flavoured line extensions ‘continue to experience phenomenal growth since their 1993 introduction’ and contributed to the popularity of moist snuff over loose leaf tobacco.83
In addition to flavouring, tobacco product flavour constituents such as sugars, acetaldehyde, menthol and methyl salicylate can exhibit sensory or pharmacological properties.107
Sugars impact nicotine delivery and perception of strength
One of the most common tobacco additives is sugar. Sugar has been added to tobacco in cigarette manufacturing to decrease the pH of the smoke to make it easier to inhale.108
Similarly, with ST, internal tobacco industry research confirmed that sweeter milder flavours could increase appeal to starters by potentially lowering the pH of tobacco. According to an internal USST memo, some sugars could have an impact on the amount of free nicotine.109 According to a 1994 Wall Street Journal article, USST routinely added ‘chemicals to its snuff to deliver the free nicotine faster and to make the product stronger’ to increase the impact for more experienced users.110
The fermentation process involves adding chemicals which increase pH too…without increasing the pH, you couldn't get nicotine release. [Copenhagen] was brought up to a pH of 7.8 by adding more sodium carbonate and ammonium carbonate.110
A USST memo prepared by Erik Lindqvist discusses the optimal level of pH for a proposed brand (Red Seal Menthol) suggesting knowledge of a relationship between flavour and pH.45 A memo between USST Vice Presidents of Research and Development and Corporate Technology also mentioned that independent of nicotine content, sweet ST is ‘often perceived as weaker because it tastes more like candy’.109
Acetaldehyde is produced by the burning of sugars in cigarettes. It has been one of the ingredients added to tobacco by companies including USST, B&W, Conwood Company, House of Windsor and Pinkerton Tobacco Company.111 ,112 Industry researchers suspected that acetaldehyde could enhance the addictive effects of nicotine. For example, senior PM scientist Victor J DeNoble studied behavioural effects of nicotine and acetaldehyde in rats,113 and discovered that the two drugs worked synergistically to enhance the addictive nature of nicotine.108 ,113 According to DeNoble's testimony, once PM had discovered the optimal ‘addiction’ ratio of the two compounds, they increased the levels of sugar in Marlboro cigarettes to achieve the required acetaldehyde increase.113 Acetaldehyde is added to ST, but the manufacturers argue that acetaldehyde naturally occurs in food and is a component of flavours used in the smokeless industry.111
Mint and wintergreen flavours (methyl salicylate)
Mint (peppermint and spearmint) and wintergreen smokeless products are the most widely marketed frequently used for product sampling. Menthol is a major component of mint flavour. Peppermint oil contains up to 50% of menthol.114 Depending on the amount used in cigarettes, menthol can reduce the perceived impact from nicotine or can provide its own stimulation.115 The sensory characteristics of methyl salicylate to a large degree replicate those of menthol. Methyl salicylate is a volatile essential oil also found to trigger trigeminal response.116 It is a counterirritant with local anaesthetic effect.117 ,118 USST documents suggest that wintergreen flavour was associated with the perception of strength, and a decrease in wintergreen flavour level was associated with Skoal products being perceived as ‘weaker’.119
Methyl salicylate also has bacteriostatic properties. Tobacco company researchers recognised that due to the fermentation processes in manufacturing, moist snuffs have limited shelf-lives.120 “After processing, moist snuffs generally contain 105 to 108 organisms per gram. These residual organisms destroy the flavour and reduce product acceptability by generating off flavours.”120 Research performed for USST in 1975 found the quantity of nitrosonornicotine (a powerful carcinogen) in smokeless products increased with age as well.121 Tobacco companies determined that methyl salicylate was ‘a potent antimicrobial that presumably serve(d) to control microbial metabolism in ageing Skoal products, thereby preventing nitrate/nitrite evolution’.120 ,122 B&W researchers investigated the inhibitory effects of methyl salicylate in microorganism formation in snuff products in 1989,123 and conducted experimental studies comparing the impact of various formulations of wintergreen flavour and ‘straight’ flavour on bacterial count, pH level and nitrite concentration in moist snuff over time.122
Our findings suggest a longstanding awareness among tobacco companies that sweeter milder flavours increase appeal to non-users and the young by evoking a perception of mildness and blinding the strong tobacco taste and unpleasant mouth feel. Some flavours may also modify nicotine delivery by affecting product pH. In addition, tobacco companies have used flavours to appeal to experienced users to help maintain nicotine addiction, and to cigarette smokers as early as in the 1970s, perhaps in anticipation of the growing concerns among the public regarding the health risks of tobacco smoke and the advent of clean indoor air policies.8 It is notable that sweet and flavoured products encompass a substantial market share of all ST sold,1 ,124 and promotion of flavoured smokeless and other tobacco products is becoming increasingly aggressive (figures 1 and 2). While print advertising plans were not explicitly discussed in the internal documents we reviewed, Curry et al125 found that there was a sharp increase in promotion of flavoured products in magazine advertisements from 17% in 1998 to 71% in 2005.
Among flavoured products, wintergreen was the most popular flavour (39%), followed by spearmint/mint (12%), fruit flavours (5%) and other characterising flavours (0.2%).1 Proliferation of flavoured products can be traced to strategic flavoured product development by the tobacco companies in the early years as evidenced by our study and elsewhere.3 ,124 The product marketing also emphasises the flavour, using descriptors, such as ‘bold wintergreen’, ‘crisp apple’ or ‘refreshing citrus’ (figure 2). In their study of flavoured alternative product use among middle and high school students, King et al126 argue that flavours in tobacco increase appeal to adolescents, and that the associated advertising is aimed at youth.
As aforementioned, these flavours, in combination with colourful and stylised packaging, mask the harsh and toxic properties of tobacco. Recent studies on nutrition confirm that children and adolescents prefer products that are sweeter and have more intense flavour than those preferred by adults.127 ,128 In fact, flavour is a major factor in promoting products for the youth market.129 Children prefer higher intensities of sweet taste than adults do and there is evidence that sweet taste preferences are innate in humans.130 ,131 The blinding effects of sugar may be due not only to its impact on the pH of tobacco but also to its analgesic and opiate-like properties.132 The brain circuitry activated from tasting sweet substances overlaps with the circuitry mediating the addictive nature of drugs, such as opiates.132 ,133 Thus, children's liking of the sweetness intensity is positively associated with pain tolerance.134
Our findings confirm that mint-flavoured and wintergreen-flavoured products may be especially effective in making tobacco more palatable to novices, possibly contributing to the initiation and maintenance of ST use.135 We found that mint flavouring plays a particularly important role in initiation of smokeless use and subsequent dependence; in a recent study of adult ST users, a majority of participants' first and current choice of product was flavoured, specifically mint or wintergreen, and a significant number of smokeless users switched to a flavoured brand after already initiating ST use with a regular ‘natural’ product.135 ,136 One analysis found the average level of mint in the top five ST products was 50% higher than that of the top five brands of candy, and levels of wintergreen additive were eight times higher.136 Our study adds to this literature by demonstrating that mint and wintergreen flavour (methyl salicylate) appeal to starters as well as among experienced ST users. This suggests that the mint and wintergreen flavours may also reinforce use and potentially enhance addiction. Furthermore, methyl salicylate may serve other functions unrelated to flavouring, due to its antibacterial properties and thus potential effect on nitrosamines, pH and levels of free nicotine. As an analgesic, it may facilitate continued use of ST despite adverse effects on oral health by reducing pain sensations and masking irritation from oral tobacco.
Methyl salicylate, similarly to menthol, stimulates trigeminal nerve endings that exist in oral and nasal cavities.114 ,137 Its function in ST may be analogous to the function of menthol in cigarettes documented by Kreslake and Yerger,115 showing industry-funded scientists found that stimulation of nociceptors in the trigeminal nerve could increase perceived sensory impact and act as enhancement or potential substitute for nicotine in cigarette smoking or produce ‘anaesthetic’ effects to mask harsh tobacco flavour.115
The present study has limitations. Archives of previously secret industry documents are incomplete and some relevant documents may not have been found or were not available. However, the consistency of these findings over time and across multiple tobacco companies, and the parallels of these strategies in with marketing campaigns for cigarettes and other tobacco products increase our confidence in the findings.
Flavoured products marketing adversely affects public health by appealing to youth and novices, and the anaesthetic and sensory qualities of mint and menthol flavours may also promote continued use or addiction; therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should extend the ban on flavoured cigarettes to include flavoured ST products. The FDA has the authority under sections 906(d) and 907 of the Family Smoking Prevention Tobacco Control Act to issue regulations requiring restrictions on the sale and distribution of tobacco products that would be appropriate for the protection of the public health, including adopting tobacco product standards.138 Menthol is not currently included in the ban on characterising flavours in cigarettes. With the US109 FDA's decision in 2016 extending regulatory authority to all tobacco products,139 the FDA should establish a product standard prohibiting flavours including menthol, wintergreen and mint in all tobacco products. Public health and tobacco control professionals can contribute to the effort to reduce youth tobacco use by educating parents and children about the tobacco industry's role developing flavoured tobacco to lure new users. Elimination of all flavoured tobacco products would benefit public health by helping reduce youth tobacco initiation and encouraging tobacco cessation.
What this paper adds
While cigarettes with characterising flavours are prohibited, flavoured smokeless tobacco products are still available. While it is known that flavoured smokeless tobacco products comprise an increasing share of the US smokeless tobacco market, the role that flavours have played in smokeless tobacco market expansion is less well understood.
No prior study has focused on what tobacco companies' internal research reveals about the role of flavourings in the development and marketing of smokeless tobacco products and its effects on smokeless tobacco use.
We found that flavoured smokeless tobacco products were first developed in the 1960s to appeal to youth and novices, and tobacco companies performed extensive research on how different types of flavours ease smokeless tobacco initiation. In addition, flavoured additives to smokeless tobacco serve a variety of other potential functions, including effects on product pH, nicotine delivery, sensory perceptions and potentially nitrosamine content.
These findings suggest that to decrease youth initiation, similar to flavoured cigarettes, flavoured smokeless tobacco products should be prohibited, including mint and wintergreen flavours.
Contributors GK collected the data and led the writing. PML supervised the study, obtained funding, and contributed to the data analysis and writing. Both authors conceptualised the paper, critically revised the manuscript and approved the final article and are responsible for the content.
Funding This research was supported by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (grant R01-CA141661).
Disclaimer The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data sharing statement This study is an analysis of previously secret tobacco industry documents, all of which are freely available to the public at the Truth Tobacco Documents Library at https://www.industrydocumentslibrary.ucsf.edu/tobacco/.