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Themes in e-liquid concept names as a marketing tactic: evidence from Premarket Tobacco Product Applications in the USA
  1. Linnea Laestadius1,
  2. Julia Vassey2,
  3. Minji Kim3,
  4. Jenny Ozga4,
  5. Dongmei Li5,
  6. Cassandra Stanton4,
  7. Heather Wipfli2,
  8. Jennifer B Unger2
  1. 1 Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
  2. 2 Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA
  3. 3 Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, USA
  4. 4 Behavioral Health and Health Policy Practice, Westat, Inc, Rockville, Maryland, USA
  5. 5 Department of Clinical and Translational Research, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Linnea Laestadius, Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI 53211, USA; llaestad{at}

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Concept naming of flavours is popular among e-liquid manufacturers.1–3 Rather than explicitly stating a taste or smell, these names convey aesthetics or sensations (eg, unicorn, frostbite, roadhouse), as well as positive health and lifestyle experiences (eg, relaxed, blissful).4 Concept names are frequently accompanied by colourful packaging and bottle designs that reinforce their connotations.1 2 While concept naming is not novel, its impact on youth appeal, as distinct from the flavours themselves, is understudied.5

Concept naming warrants additional attention following US regulatory developments limiting characterising flavours in e-liquids. Several states and localities (eg, New York, Massachusetts, San Francisco) prohibited the sale of non-tobacco-flavoured electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) and e-liquid products as early as 2020,6 and as of April 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued Premarket Tobacco Product Marketing Granted Orders only for tobacco-flavoured e-cigarette and e-liquid products, denying many flavoured products.7 Several countries, including China and Denmark, have announced similar restrictions.8 Prior research suggests that tobacco companies attempt to bypass flavour restrictions through concept names that obscure flavour profiles.9 10 For example, BIDI Vapor renamed its flavoured disposable e-cigarettes with concept names (eg, ‘Berry Blast’ became ‘Solar’).11 Recent work on flavoured cigarette perceptions in Mexico suggests that concept names implying fruity or cool flavours increase product interest among youth relative to packs without flavour names.12 Further, as extrinsic information can shape taste perceptions, concept names could heighten youth appeal even for tobacco-flavoured e-liquids.13 14

The e-liquid flavour wheel established by Krüsemann et al 15 has been a valuable tool as it established a shared schema for classifying flavours and flavour-focused names (eg, chocolate is categorised as ‘other sweets’ rather than ‘candy’). A similar tool could be developed for concept names. A typology of common themes could provide insight into industry naming conventions so that they can be tracked over time and potentially regulated. It could also help to facilitate research on whether youth perceive concept names as associated with certain flavour profiles. For example, unicorn-themed e-liquid names appear to denote creamy flavours1; still, it is unclear whether other concept name themes represent certain flavours or flavour blends. The lists of product applications received through the Premarket Tobacco Product Applications pathway represent perhaps the largest publicly available aggregation of e-liquid product names in the USA. These documents reveal a breadth of concept names, submitted as characterising flavours, that cluster into larger themes.

Illustrated in table 1, major themes in concept names include physical and emotional experiences, as well as identities and status. This aligns with the cigarette industry’s tactic of targeting youth by positioning smoking as a new experience and act of individual self-expression.16 Names related to nature, science, mythology and popular culture were also prominent. Many concept names convey multiple meanings simultaneously. Name interpretation is also likely to vary by personal and cultural context, and users may infer symbolic, connotative meanings to names in addition to literal meanings (eg, ‘Al Capone’ may be seen as a generic personal name or suggest violence and rebellion, status and money, and/or masculinity, depending on the knowledge, culture, and perspective of the user).17 18 Table 1 is not exhaustive in this regard and primarily captures literal meanings and the cultural context of US-based authors. Our typology reflects up-to-date industry trends in the USA as of the early 2020s but is unlikely to fully capture naming conventions and interpretations in other countries and other times, necessitating typologies that are time and culture appropriate.

Table 1

E-liquid concept name themes and subthemes found among Premarket Tobacco Product Applications

Continuation of concept naming practices by industry, either to obscure non-tobacco flavours or to promote different kinds of tobacco flavouring, may undermine efforts to reduce youth vaping. Research is needed to expand on this initial typology of e-liquid concept names. The possibility of developing a typology applicable across tobacco products should also be explored considering that FDA’s recently proposed rules to prohibit menthol cigarettes and flavoured cigars may fuel industry naming tactics.19 Future research could assist in monitoring concept names used as marketing tactics, impacts on youth appeal and use of tobacco-flavoured products allowed to remain on the market.

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  • Contributors All authors assisted with study development and manuscript content. LL, JV, MK, JO and DL reviewed PMTA lists. LL prepared the full draft, with the other authors assisting with edits.

  • Funding This work is a cross-institution collaborative project from the Marketing Influences Special Interest Group supported, in part, by U54-DA046060-01 from the Center for Coordination of Analytics, Science, Enhancement and Logistics (CASEL) in Tobacco Regulatory Science (National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products (FDA CTP)). Research reported in this publication was supported in part by U54CA180905 from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the FDA CTP-funded Tobacco Centers of Regulatory Science (TCORS) at the University of Southern California, U54CA228110 from the WNY Center for Research on Flavored Tobacco Products (CRoFT) under cooperative agreement, and the University of Rochester CTSA award UL1 TR002001 from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.

  • Disclaimer The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funders or affiliated institutions.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.