Even though the FDA doesn't actually know how many underage smokers choose flavored cigarettes, a new study claims that thrill-seeking teenagers are especially susceptible to fruit-flavored cigarettes and the federal government was right to outlaw the flavorful smokes last September.

"We found that those teens who gravitate toward novel experiences were especially drawn to cigarettes described as having an appealing, sweet flavor, such as cherry," says lead author Kenneth Manning with Colorado State University.

If you have any doubts about the objectivity of the research, don't worry. The study is featured in a journal called Tobacco Control and was funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, an organization that sees nothing wrong with federal regulation of personal behavior. So clearly there's no way the results are tainted by politics.

Manning says past research has found that high-sensation-seeking youth are more likely to smoke cigarettes than their low-sensation-seeking peers.  But until now, no studies have looked at how novel, sweet-tasting cigarettes might impact this group of thrill seekers.

The authors proposed that the influence of cigarette flavor descriptors lies in their ability to alter the "arousal potential" of a cigarette brand's marketing communications (such as its packaging). Arousal potential refers to the degree to which a stimulus (like the description of a cigarette's flavor) is capable of gaining attention and exciting the nervous system.

To test this theory, the researchers divided 253 high school students into two groups to evaluate three pictures of cigarette packages: Camel, American Spirit, and a fictitious brand, "Onyx". The first group viewed packages that included traditional cigarette descriptions such as "domestic blend," and the second group of teens viewed packages with the cigarettes described as "cherry." 

Following exposure to each package, the study participants responded to several questions regarding the appeal of the brand (i.e., beliefs about how enjoyable it would be, overall evaluation, and trial intention).

To determine their sensation-seeking tendencies, the students responded to measures such as "I would like to explore strange places" and "I like friends who are exciting and unpredictable."

 Sensation-seeking varies over a continuum, explains Manning.  "In our study, we essentially divided half of the students into the high group and the other half into the low group based on their overall sensation-seeking scores."

Results indicated that the appeal of the brands across the belief, attitude, and trial intention measures depended on both the sensation-seeking tendency of the student and whether the student had viewed the brand packages with the traditional or sweet flavor descriptions. 

In particular, among students who were classified as high-sensation seekers, the cigarette brands were significantly more appealing to those exposed to the packages that included the sweet flavor descriptors than to those who had viewed the packages with the traditional descriptions.

This underscores a key point of the FDA ban—that flavors make cigarettes and other tobacco products more appealing to youth, and are created to attract and allure kids into lifelong addiction. "By enhancing the arousal potential associated with tobacco brands, sweet flavor descriptors boost the appeal of these products among high-sensation seekers," the authors conclude.

Citation: K C Manning, K J Kelly, M L Comello, 'Flavoured cigarettes, sensation seeking and adolescents’ perceptions of cigarette brands',   Tob Control  2009, 18:459-465; doi:10.1136/tc.2009.029454