According to a new study published Tuesday morning in the Journal of the American Medical Association, teens have flocked to Mint JUUL pods—the only available flavor that doesn’t have a direct cigarette analog—as their favorite. So it stands to reason that any regulation of JUUL flavors that still allows Mint pods may be essentially pointless.
Several states and municipalities—plus JUUL Labs itself—have attempted to curb underage use of vape products by restricting sales of certain flavors that appeal to teens, like mango, cucumber, fruit, and other non-traditional options. Researchers behind this latest study asked eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students who reported using JUUL products in the past 30 days which flavor they used the most. While eighth graders prefer Mango pods above all other options, Mint is the most popular flavor choice for 10th and 12th grade respondents. Across age groups, Mint is favored by students who said they’d used a JUUL at least 20 out of the past 30 days, indicating that Mint is the go-to flavor for teens who JUUL the most.
This seems like a surprising finding, given that previous reporting suggested that teens gravitate toward fruity flavors the most (which is why those flavors are the target of JUUL’s own ban). But the survey data comes from February–June 2019, three months after JUUL said it was no longer going to put non-Mint, Menthol, and Tobacco flavors on retail shelves. (The banned flavors remain on shelves anyway). So one potential reason why Mint is preferred (especially among 12th graders, some of whom are old enough to legally purchase JUUL pods) could be that it’s the easiest-to-find flavor that isn’t also a cigarette flavor, like tobacco or menthol (both of which barely register interest among teens, according to this new study). Many public health experts have already argued that bans like these are ineffective and make the lives of people who are actually using vaping to quit regular cigarettes more difficult. While fun flavors may draw new teens in, this research shows they will also adapt to what’s available.
I’m not a scientist, per se, but something I’d love to see is the data around how many underage vapers simply switched from Mango or Cucumber to Mint after JUUL tried to regulate the sale of those flavors. In the final line of the study, researchers question “whether regulations or sales suspensions that exempt mint flavors are optimal strategies for reducing youth e-cigarette use,” hinting that maybe everything except tobacco should be banned. The FDA is now reportedly considering exactly that. But given that teens appear to have adapted their fun and fruity lifestyles to standardize to Mint, it’s not entirely clear they won’t make the same jump to tobacco when it’s the only option.