Background Three categories of e-cigarette brands have emerged within the US market: e-cigarette brands developed by cigarette manufacturers, brands acquired by cigarette manufacturers and brands with no cigarette manufacturer affiliation. In the absence of federal regulatory oversight of e-cigarettes, we assessed differences in e-cigarette products and sales practices across these categories.
Methods Brand websites for top-selling e-cigarette brands from each of these categories were examined in October of 2015 to compare website access restrictions, online sales practices and products sold, including e-cigarette model type (eg, ‘cigalike’ vs advanced systems) and options available (eg, flavoured, nicotine free).
Results Website access to brands developed by cigarette manufacturers was restricted to users aged 21 years or older, and one website required user registration. In addition, these brands were exclusively reusable/rechargeable ‘cigalikes.’ Limited flavour options were available for these products, and nicotine-free options were not sold. In contrast, brands acquired by cigarette manufacturers and brands with no cigarette manufacturer affiliation generally required website visitors to be 18, offered a nicotine-free option, and most offered disposable products and an array of flavoured products (eg, fruit/candy flavours).
Conclusions This exploratory study finds differences in e-cigarette products and sales practices across these three e-cigarette brand categories, with brands developed by cigarette manufacturers adopting a particularly distinctive product and sales strategy. Anticipated regulation of e-cigarettes in the USA may be influencing these product and sales decisions.
- Electronic nicotine delivery devices
- Tobacco industry
- Surveillance and monitoring
Statistics from Altmetric.com
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Awareness and use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) has increased precipitously since their introduction a decade ago.1–3 In the USA, the world's largest e-cigarette market, sales (including tanks, mods and other personal vaporisers) have reached an estimated US$2.5 billion.4 E-cigarette popularity has attracted numerous companies, including some cigarette manufacturers.5 More than 400 e-cigarette brands are available within the USA.6
In 2013, the two largest US cigarette manufacturers, Altria and Reynolds American Inc (RAI), introduced new e-cigarette brands into US markets.5 Further, cigarette manufacturers have acquired e-cigarette brands. Blu was acquired by Lorillard in 2012 and then by Imperial Tobacco in 2015.7 Altria acquired Green Smoke in 2014,8 and Japan Tobacco acquired Logic in 2015.9 However, most of the e-cigarette brands sold within the USA have no cigarette manufacturer association.
We reviewed websites for leading e-cigarette brands developed by cigarette manufacturers (industry brands), brands acquired by cigarette manufacturers (acquired brands) and brands with no cigarette manufacturer affiliation (independent brands) to understand how their e-cigarette product offerings and sales practices compare. We examined each website's access restrictions; online sales; and product line (eg, flavour and disposable options). These features may contribute to youth uptake and use and may be subject to future e-cigarette regulation. For example, a 2015 study found that minors could easily purchase e-cigarettes online.10 Further, some have called for a ban on flavoured e-cigarettes.11 Disposable e-cigarettes typically cost less than reuseable e-cigarettes and thus may appeal to minors.
Although no published data on internet e-cigarette sales volume or sales in vape shops exist, the Nielsen Company tracks market share for convenience, drug and food/mass channels. We visited the top nine e-cigarette brand websites according to the Nielsen scanner data12 for sales in the USA in 2013: Blu, NJOY, Logic, 21st Century Smoke, Finiti/Fin, Nicotek, Mistic, Vuse and MarkTen. We also visited the website for the brand Green Smoke (acquired by Altria).
While Nicotek was reported as a leading brand by Nielsen,12 after visiting Nicotek's website and calling Nicotek's customer service, we determined that Nicotek was a company and not a brand. Nicotek sells three e-cigarette brands: Metro, Faze Vapor and East Indies Hookah. Therefore, we visited the website for Metro, which also markets East Indies Hookah products and Faze Vapor. In total, we examined 11 e-cigarette brand websites: two industry brand websites (MarkTen,13 Vuse,14), three acquired brand websites (Blu,15 Green Smoke,16 Logic17), and six independent brand websites (21st Century Smoke,18 Faze Vapor,19 Fin,20 Metro,21 Mistic,22 NJOY23).
For websites marketing multiple brands, brands were aggregated to assess product characteristics. For example, if a website marketed multiple brands and one of the brands was available with a feature, that website was coded as having that feature. The Mistic website22 marketed Mistic and Haus brands, and Metro's website21 marketed Metro and East Indies Hookah brands.
We visited websites in October of 2015 to assess access restrictions; online sales; e-cigarette type (ie, ‘cigalike’ vs advanced systems); and availability of disposable, nicotine-free and flavoured options. Access restrictions included the minimum age for website access and age verification. To assess online sales, we determined whether e-cigarettes were sold through the website. Information on e-cigarette type and the availability of disposable, nicotine-free and flavoured options was obtained by exploring the website's store or other sections describing the products.
Advanced systems are new generation e-cigarette products. Compared to first generation products (‘cigalikes’), advanced systems typically have larger batteries and atomisers and may allow users to control the devices’ power.24 While cigalikes tend to be cylindrically shaped, advanced systems usually have an irregular non-cigarette appearance with a thicker middle compartment. Further, advanced systems are typically reuseable and refillable (e-liquid solution), while cigalikes may be disposable or reusable (cartridges). The present study defined advanced systems as products including two or more of the following: (1) user voltage control, (2) refillable with e-liquid and (3) non-cigarette appearance.
E-cigarettes were coded as being ‘disposable’ if they were labelled as such or described as intended for single use. Nicotine-free included products advertised as containing 0% or 0 mg nicotine. Consistent with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act,25 menthol and tobacco varieties were not considered flavours. Websites mentioning other flavours, including fruit, candy and less traditional ‘flavors’ (eg, chai, fusion), were coded as flavoured.
Two coders independently reviewed all websites. Each coder visited each website on separate computers on 2 October 2015. Prior to website visits, computer cookies and caches were cleared to erase temporary files and website settings from previous website visits. After comparing coding and discussing discrepancies, both coders came to full agreement on all measures.
Website access restrictions and online sales
Except for one brand website (21st Century Smoke), which had no age minimum, all websites for independent brands limited website access to visitors aged ≥18 years. All websites for acquired brands similarly limited access to visitors aged ≥18 years. Access to all websites was granted by self-report. In contrast, industry brands limited access to visitors aged ≥21 years, and the Vuse website required website registration (ie, provide detailed personal information).
All websites sold e-cigarettes online, except Vuse, an industry brand. Vuse was described as being sold only in tobacco retailers.
Advanced systems and disposables
Four out of six websites for independent brands featured advanced systems. In contrast, websites for acquired and industry brands did not feature advanced systems. All independent brands offered disposable e-cigarettes, except Faze Vapor. With the exception of Green Smoke, all acquired brands also offered disposables. No industry brands offered disposable options. Industry brands were exclusively reusable/rechargeable ‘cigalikes.’
Nicotine-free and flavours
Except for Faze Vapor, all independent and acquired brands offered nicotine-free options. However, no industry brands offered nicotine-free options.
Among independent brands, all websites, except 21st Century Smoke, offered fruit/candy-flavoured products. Two acquired brands (Blu, Green Smoke) also sold a variety of flavoured products. Blu offered fruit/candy flavours, while Green Smoke offered non-traditional flavours (eg, smooth cream). Logic was only available in tobacco and menthol varieties. Both industry brands offered flavoured products. MarkTen exclusively offered non-fruit/candy flavours (eg, fusion), while Vuse offered one fruit flavour (ie, berry) and some non-traditional flavours (eg, crema). Table 1 summarises characteristics among the 11 e-cigarette brand websites visited.
Altria and RAI have used similar strategies in the design and sale of the e-cigarette products they developed. Neither of their brand websites offers disposable, advanced systems or nicotine-free products. Further, both brands come in limited flavour options, with only a single fruit/candy flavour between the two brands. Their practices have differed greatly from most of the leading independent and acquired brands.
The Food and Drug Administration is in the process of extending its jurisdiction over e-cigarettes and could impose new e-cigarette regulations soon.26 Altria and RAI both restricted website access to individuals aged 21+ years (RAI required registration, Altria self-report) and offered limited flavours, suggesting that they may be anticipating future e-cigarette regulations. However, some cigarette makers may be taking advantage of an unregulated environment through acquired brands. Acquired brands had less stringent website access restrictions and offered a variety of product options, including flavours.
Advanced systems were offered by four of six independent brands but none of the acquired or industry brands. These differences may represent attempts to appeal to different segments of e-cigarette users. Some e-cigarette users, particularly experienced users, have reported using e-cigarettes as a hobby and mixing and matching e-cigarette liquids and components to customise their experience.27 ,28 A longitudinal study from Great Britain also found that device type was associated with smoking cessation, with daily tank users (ie, advanced systems) being more likely to quit than those not using e-cigarettes at follow-up.29 A separate study found that advanced systems demonstrated greater nicotine delivery compared to cigalike products.24 Products that deliver too little nicotine may not be adequate for complete cigarette substitution and instead may facilitate dual use with conventional cigarettes. By selling advanced systems and offering flavours, independent brands may be targeting experienced e-cigarette users or smokers wanting to quit.
A study limitation is that brands sold exclusively online or in vape shops may be designed and sold differently than the brands included here. It is also not known if the included brands are sold on websites other than their brand websites, including non-US websites. Further, this investigation is limited to products available within the USA to allow comparison between brands sold within the same regulatory environment. While this study focused on leading e-cigarette brands sold in retailers, these brands represented a relatively small sample compared to the total number of e-cigarette brands, and each of the three brand categories had a small sample size. Finally, all measures were observed cross-sectionally. Given the rapid changes in the e-cigarette market, longitudinal data collection would enrich our findings.
Cigarette manufacturers’ relatively limited product offerings suggest a common strategy to prepare for future regulation. However, their less restrictive approach to selling brands they acquired may simultaneously enable them to profit from the currently unregulated environment. Since e-cigarette use continues to grow both among youth and adults, continued monitoring of the e-cigarette industry is needed.
What this paper adds
Three categories of e-cigarette brands have emerged within the USA: brands developed by cigarette manufacturers, brands acquired by cigarette manufacturers and brands with no cigarette manufacturer affiliation.
In contrast to brands acquired by cigarette manufacturers and those with no cigarette manufacturer affiliation, brands developed by cigarette manufacturers were not available in disposable models, advanced systems (eg, tanks) or nicotine-free options, and the minimum age for accessing their websites was 21 years.
Monitoring e-cigarette product and sales practices by the brand categories presented here may provide an insight into how the diffuse e-cigarette industry is beginning to organise itself, target different segments of consumers and prepare for impending regulation.
The authors would like to thank Jason Derrick for his assistance with website archiving.
Contributors ABS conceptualised the study and led the writing of the manuscript's first draft. CLJ and KMR helped draft and revise the manuscript.
Competing interests KMR is a member of the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee for the FDA Center for Tobacco Products—the views expressed in this paper are his and not those of the FDA. KMR serves as an expert consultant in litigation against cigarette manufacturers.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data sharing statement Data can be made available on request to the corresponding author.