Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Big Tobacco’s Innovative Smokescreen

By Janet Hoak and Philip Gendall

While tobacco companies claim to be cooperating with health authorities to reduce smoking, new tobacco products are squarely aimed at recruiting new smokers.

The major tobacco companies have presented a vision of a smoke-free world in which the prevalence of smoking has fallen to minimal levels. This goal has much in common with national tobacco end-game ambitions, and appears to create opportunities for health researchers and smoke-free advocates to work together with a well resourced industry to achieve a common objective. Yet, despite their public statements, tobacco companies continue to develop new products, such as flavour capsule cigarettes that enhance smoking’s appeal.

Flavour capsule cigarettes are a relatively recent product innovation that allow smokers to customise their smoking experience by crushing flavour capsules in cigarette filters, thus flavouring the smoke inhaled with fruit or menthol. Promoted as intriguing and fresh, capsule cigarettes combine the promise of greater pleasure while implying reduced harm.

Flavours appeal strongly to young people, many of whom find their early experience of smoking unpalatable. Since their introduction in the early 2000s, capsule cigarette sales have grown rapidly, even in markets where overall tobacco consumption is declining, such as New Zealand and Australia.

Tobacco companies often argue that their marketing strategies aim to shift market share rather than recruit new users, yet analyses of industry documents show that flavours play a key role in recruiting new smokers by reducing the harshness of their initial smoking experience. Furthermore, since many smokers cite taste as the key reason for smoking their brand, it is illogical for tobacco companies to interfere with this attribute. Thus it seems likely that flavour capsule cigarettes hold little or no appeal to existing smokers, but instead are designed attract new smokers.

To test this proposition, we created an online survey to examine choice patterns, probability outcomes and perceptions of 425 young adult smokers and 390 susceptible non-smokers aged between 18 and 25. For smokers, we tested four different flavours (Fruit Burst, Pineapple & Mango, Rum & Coke, Menthol Blast) and an unflavoured control, along with four different prices positioned at premium, everyday, value and super-value levels ($26.40, $24.20; $22.00 and $19.80). Because susceptible non-smokers typically access tobacco through social networks rather than by purchasing it, we did not test price with them but expanded the flavours examined to include Hawaiian Mojito and Energy Drink.

Smokers preferred the unflavoured option to all of the flavoured options, and would pay up to $2.93 more for an unflavoured pack. By contrast, susceptible non-smokers preferred the flavoured sticks, particularly the fruit flavours, relative to an unflavoured stick. While smokers were more likely than non-smokers to take any stick offered to them, they were much more likely to take an unflavoured than a flavoured stick. By contrast, susceptible non-smokers were much less likely to take an unflavoured option compared with a flavoured stick.

Susceptible non-smokers were also more likely than smokers to see flavour capsule sticks as smoother, more fun to smoke, more satisfying, more attractive and more stylish. In other words, capsule cigarettes appealed more to non-smokers than to smokers, and thus seem likely to facilitate smoking uptake and potentially increase smoking prevalence.

Our findings suggest at least three important conclusions. First, despite tobacco companies’ claims that they wish to see smoking prevalence fall, they are continuing to develop products that are much more appealing to non-smokers than to smokers. Second, as researchers focus on assessing new “reduced harm” products launched by tobacco companies, they must continue assessing innovations in smoked tobacco products. Third, policy-makers must be vigilant and courageous, and ensure they future-proof regulations to address tobacco industry innovations and guard against marketing initiatives that position smoking as fun, appealing and enjoyable. Potential policy responses to the threat posed by capsule cigarettes include ensuring that standardised packaging regulations disallow capsule cigarettes by specifically regulating the appearance and design of tobacco products, or introducing bespoke regulations that prevent capsule cigarette sales.

Previous tobacco policies have significantly constrained tobacco marketing. Tobacco is no longer widely advertised in Australia or New Zealand, and tobacco sponsorship is banned in both countries. Tobacco is very expensive to purchase, and unappealing colours have replaced the evocative brand imagery that previously featured on packages.

Thus, product innovation is now an even more crucial component of the marketing mix that helps tobacco companies to recruit the replacement smokers on whom their business depends. This product innovation strategy confirms long-held doubts about the sincerity of tobacco companies’ public statements about their intentions to end smoking.

Janet Hoek is a Professor of Public Health and Marketing at the University of Otago. Philip Gendall is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Otago, and an Emeritus Professor of Marketing at Massey University. The study reported here was published in Tobacco Control (