What’s the Deal With All the Flavors?
Electronic cigarettes and cigars, or “e-cigs,” is a growing industry, amassing nearly $2 billion in sales in 2013 alone. As the industry grows and the products become more ubiquitous, the market steadily creates more and more products to appeal to consumers. In the e-cig industry, choice amounts to two things – what you smoke and how you smoke it.
For many, the latter question is the most important. Smokers are gravitating to e-cigs in large part because of the technology. Electronic smoking devices are safer than traditional tobacco products. Instead of using fire to burn organic matter soaked in a potpourri of chemicals, e-cigarettes use an electrical element to heat a relatively innocuous liquid containing nicotine, flavoring and a base – typically glycerin or glycol.
This method of transmission is preferable for a number of reasons. First, the light vapor an e-cigarette or e-cigar creates is milder on the lungs than tobacco. The technology used to create the apparatus also provides additional tools, like adjusting how much heat is used, and that allows the user a greater degree of control over what they’re smoking.
More notably, the smoker’s control is asserted through the choice of liquid they choose to smoke. Tobacco can come from any number of farms that use any number of growing techniques, including an array of chemical and natural pesticides and fertilizers that stay in the tobacco all through processing. Vaporizing liquid, on the other hand, is typically manufactured in small batches using only a very few ingredients that are well-known to users that do their research. Combine this with the amount of choice available to e-cigarette users thanks to the near-infinite number of flavors and it’s easy to see why the electronic cigarette industry is growing as quickly as it is.
A Brief History of Flavors
Early vaporizing liquid was typically “tobacco” flavored, which meant it was designed to taste similar to a generic cigarette. Menthol quickly followed. When those became popular, people began experimenting, and before long it was discovered that it wasn’t horribly difficult to make the vapor hold just about any flavor a person could think of.
Since their inception, e-cigarettes have been relatively unregulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For the most part, they’re generalized as a “tobacco product,” and ignored beyond the regulations already in place for their counterparts. While e-cigs are essentially safer and less toxic than cigarettes, early experimentation with flavoring and other additives met with some problems.
Much of the negative research on e-cigarettes comes from this period. While plenty of manufacturers were experimenting with flavors in a safe environment where they could gauge the effects before they went to market, there were some unforeseen problems. One commonly referred to incident involves a manufacturer in Northern England that used diacetyl, a butterscotch flavoring that is safe to eat but dangerous to inhale. While these problems weren’t common, they did create enough discussion to stimulate controversy.
Fortunately, the liquid tobacco industry has become self-regulating, in no small part due to the culture of its consumers. E-cig users tend to be people that want to be conscious of what they’re putting into their bodies. In the age of internet information retrieval, the consumer base has taken to educating both the public and themselves about the pros and cons of electronic cigarettes, and it only takes a few clicks of a mouse to find out everything from how the equipment works to exactly what process is used to create the liquid and add flavorings.
Start With a Base
E-cigarette liquid generally contains three things – nicotine, flavoring, and a base made from a water mix. While the nicotine is added directly by a cartridge in the utensil being used and the flavoring can be created in a variety of ways we’ll get to shortly, the base is typically made from one or both of two standard ingredients: vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG).
Propylene glycol is the thinner, “lighter” of the two. It’s made from propylene, which is an industrial byproduct used for all kinds of things. Propylene can come from just about any fossil fuel, or it can be collected during organic matter’s fermentation process. E-cig liquid made from PG tends to have a lower viscosity, which leads to a higher vapor temperature that holds a stronger flavor.
Vegetable glycerin is a thicker, almost sugary liquid made from plant oils – often plants like soy and palm that extract oils known for their cooking properties. The vapor is sometimes a little sweet, and can contain some color, but it produces a thicker vapor that holds a lower temperature. VG is the less popular of the two, but most bases are made from a mixture of the two.
The combination of VG and PG in a liquid’s base determines the “feel” of each hit, with a higher concentration of VG providing heavier but cooler vapor. Many liquid manufacturers use the properties of each to create different consistencies depending on the needs of the flavoring.
A Bounty of Flavors
Early e-cigarette flavors did their best to mimic the taste of a traditional cigarette or cigar, and those are still around in abundance. If anything, the flavor explosion that’s overtaken the industry in the last couple of years has made it possible to find liquid that tastes like specialty and regional tobaccos from all over.
However, we live in a world of craftspeople, experts in their attentiveness and eager to get something uniquely interesting out of everything they experience. Craft beer is the fastest growing segment of the alcohol industry, bacon is a flavor of ice cream, and candles can sometimes smell like sawdust or grease. Any product with a scent or a taste has been tinkered with endlessly, so it should come as no surprise that e-cigarette liquid has been given the “craft” treatment.
Fruit flavors were some of the first innovations. Manufacturers started out using traditional tastes – apple, peach, strawberry, banana. Before long, they started to mix like fruit juice. Strawberry and banana can, of course, combine to create strawberry banana. Apple can be adjusted to become Appletini. Get really creative, and you can put a few together to create a banana split.
The next step was to go full dessert. The sweetness inherent in VG makes treats the perfect palate to aim for. Spices like cinnamon can be added to make the vapor taste like candy red hots. Chocolate, cheesecake, butter pecan candy, bubble gum, even tutti fruity can be created with the right flavorings.
Not to be left out, the beverage industry had to be catered to. A lot of manufacturers are creating liquid that tastes like everything from coffee to cola, amaretto to root beer. Drinks are a natural avenue for flavor exploration as they naturally lend themselves to vapor. It’s not uncommon, after all, for a coffee drinker to put their face close to the mug and inhale the aroma before they take that first drink in the morning.
Finally, the real innovation in the flavor market is in specialty blending. Liquid flavors can be as uniquely tailored as a perfume, incense, coffee order or smoothy. A lot of established manufacturers have taken their cue from their consumers and now it’s possible to find easy and convenient vendors that can create the perfect blend for anyone.
Why Bother With Flavors?
The natural question to the cornucopia of flavors available to e-cigarette users is why bother? If electronic cigarettes are designed as a way to help tobacco smokers kick the habit, what’s the point of making them taste good?
There’s a couple of ways to approach this. The first is to think of it like medicine. It’s true that the whole point of cough syrup is to make a cough go away, but there’s a reason they’ve done their best as an industry to make that cough syrup taste better. A spoonful of sugar quite literally helps the medicine go down, and if making an e-cigarette taste better will help a smoker become a former smoker, shouldn’t it be counted as a win?
A more apt argument, however, is simply “why not?” E-cigarettes were originally designed as a device to help people quit smoking, but it would be disingenuous to think that’s still the case. It’s certainly true that a portion of the market is still the smoker that wants to quit smoking, an increasingly larger section of the consumer base has become smokers that may or may not want to quit but definitely want to make sure what they’re doing is safer while they’re doing it.
The abundance of flavors available on the market is an enticement for people that smoke to smoke something safer and more controllable. If vaporizing liquid is already cleaner, if it already prevents smoker’s breathe, and if it already promises to do less harm to the lungs, why can’t it taste like hazelnut, too?
The key to flavoring in e-cigarette liquid is to make sure it comes from an entrusted source. As long as the manufacturer knows what they’re doing, it only makes sense for a smoker to not only switch to an e-cigarette, but to try a variety of flavors and flavor blends so they don’t get bored and just go back to the convenience of picking up a pack of regular cigarettes from the corner store.