We know flavored tobacco is dangerous. It hooks young people, makes it likelier they will become regular users and makes it harder to quit. Menthol, in particular, can make starting and continuing to smoke easier, as it provides a cooling, numbing effect that masks the harsh taste and feel of smoking. The tobacco industry knows this, too, so it fights to keep flavors available and tries to delay or block flavor bans.
Despite the industry’s attempts to thwart these bans, approximately 40 countries had active or pending policies on tobacco flavors as of 2021. The flavors and products covered under these bans vary. Some bans cover all flavors, while others leave menthol on the market. Some cover tobacco and flavored accessories, while others only cover tobacco.
While many of the bans are relatively new, and thus their long-term effects are unknown, the data so far is promising: The bans are linked to higher quit rates among flavored tobacco users. But what is more difficult to measure—and is perhaps the most important—is the number of young people who have not started using tobacco because of the flavor bans.
Where are tobacco flavors banned?
Brazil, Canada, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Moldova, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Singapore, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uganda and all 27 EU member states have policies that regulate the use of flavors in tobacco products.
The official reasons for enacting these bans vary, but many governments cited the protection of young people. Five countries specifically cited their obligations under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a global treaty to reduce tobacco use. The treaty recommends that flavored tobacco products be banned or restricted, as their only purpose is to make tobacco more attractive. With 168 signatories of the treaty and only around 40 taking action on flavors, there is a lot of room to improve.
Tobacco flavor bans began in 2009, and have continued to evolve. Some, like the provisions set forth in the EU Tobacco Products Directive, started with restrictions on non-menthol flavors and later extended restrictions to menthol. In another example, Turkey started with a ban only on certain non-menthol flavors in 2012, extended the ban to include menthol in 2015 and eventually extended it again to include all flavors in 2019.
Some city, state and provincial governments have enacted more stringent regulations than those set at the national level. In Canada, several provinces implemented their own menthol bans before a national menthol ban was enacted in 2017. And in the United States, Massachusetts banned menthol in 2020 and California voted to ban it in 2022, while a nation-wide ban has yet to be passed.
The positive effects of these flavor bans are promising. But to be more effective in reducing tobacco use, bans should be more comprehensive.
So, are the flavor bans working?
The tobacco industry would like you to think they’re not. But the industry also has a history of promoting misleading science that supports its commercial interests. This proved to be the case in 2021, when the industry touted data which suggested that the city of San Francisco (California)’s flavor ban led to higher smoking rates among high school students. In a subsequent paper, researchers revealed that the data analyzed in the industry-touted study was collected before the ban was enforced.
Other studies show the benefits of the bans. For starters, as might be expected, flavor bans have been associated with reduced sales of flavored tobacco products in Europe and North America. If flavored tobacco is not for sale, fewer people buy flavored tobacco.
An analysis of menthol smoking rates in Canada also showed that the ban was associated with more quit attempts and more successful quit attempts among menthol-smokers versus non-menthol smokers. In addition, the study suggested that the absence of menthol tobacco may have prevented the relapse of menthol smokers who quit before the ban was in place.
Studies also highlight areas where bans are falling short. The study of menthol smoking rates in Canada showed that menthol smokers were more likely to switch to non-menthol cigarettes than they were to quit completely.
Similar trends were seen in the U.S. While data suggested the flavor ban, which did not include menthol, reduced smoking rates among youth and young adult smokers, most smokers switched to menthol or non-flavored cigarettes. Five years after the flavor ban, flavored cigar sales had also increased, suggesting that some users were simply switching to other flavored products. In eight EU countries, 9% of surveyed smokers had quit completely after the EU flavor ban, while 5% had moved to menthol cigarettes and 62% had moved to unflavored cigarettes.
The positive effects of these flavor bans are promising. But to be more effective in reducing tobacco use, bans should be more comprehensive. Bans should include all flavored tobacco products and new products and product modifications the industry creates to undermine these bans, such as flavor accessories and all flavor additives.
Flavor bans that cover all tobacco products and the marketing of these products could reduce the number of smokers switching from flavored cigarettes to flavored cigars, for example. Banning flavored accessories, such as flavored filter tips, flavor capsules and flavor cards, could also prevent the continued use of flavored products. And banning flavor additives, instead of “characterizing flavors,” would be easier to monitor and prevent undetectable flavors from doing harm. With a more comprehensive ban the industry would have fewer loopholes to exploit.
In addition, introducing or promoting proven quit-smoking services when flavor bans are introduced could reduce the number of flavored-tobacco users who simply switch to non-flavored tobacco.
It’s important to remember what the short-term data available thus far may not be capturing: the number of young people who never started using tobacco (flavored or otherwise) due to these bans. If a key reason to ban flavors is to reduce youth uptake of tobacco, this outcome of the bans cannot be overlooked.
Where are flavor bans needed?
An estimated 38 million 13-15-year-olds around the world use tobacco—across every country income level and in every global region. Many may have become hooked through flavors. To reduce this number and save millions of young people from the harms of tobacco now and in the future, flavor bans are needed in every country.
Particularly, flavor bans should be prioritized in countries where flavor use is growing (notably, in a recent study that examined where flavor use is growing, only one country on the list, Nigeria, has a flavor ban). Countries with young populations that are being targeted by the industry and where tobacco control legislation is generally weak should also prioritize flavor bans to prevent their young people from becoming hooked.
In order to reduce the future number of tobacco users and the associated health, social and economic harm, governments must address one of the root causes of tobacco use—flavors—and ban them for good.
 Euromonitor International, Global market share for menthol and capsule cigarettes, 2014-2020, accessed September 2020