Reporting of Differences in Taste Between Branded and Unbranded Cigarettes


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Abstract Background: Saudi Arabia implemented a plain tobacco packaging regulation, one of the World Health Organization’s recommended initiatives to help reduce smoking rates, in August 2019. A few weeks after implementation, a large number of smokers complained via various media channels, especially social media (eg, Twitter), that an extreme change in cigarette taste had occurred, frequency of coughing had increased, and for some, shortness of breath had led to hospitalization. Objective: The main objective is to determine whether smokers blinded to cigarette branding report differences in taste between branded and unbranded cigarettes. The secondary objective is to observe the frequency of immediate cough or shortness of breath. Methods: This study employed a within-person, randomized crossover design that recruited current smokers 18 years and older who were cleared upon physical assessment before the experiment. Participants received 6 sequences of different random exposures (3 puffs) to 3 plain-packaged cigarettes (2 from their favorite brand and 1 from another brand as a control) and 3 branded cigarettes (2 from the favorite brand and 1 from another brand as a control). Participants wore virtual reality goggles accompanied by special software to alter visual reality and gloves to alter the touch sensation. Results: This study recruited 18 participants, measured at 6 time points, to produce 108 experiments. Participants were not able to identify the correct type of cigarettes (plain or branded, estimate of fixed effect=−0.01, P=.79). Moreover, there were no differences in the ability of the participants to identify their favorite brand (t107=−0.63, mean 0.47, P=.53). In terms of immediate coughing, out of the 108 experiments, 1 episode of short coughing was observed, which was attributed to the branded cigarette, not the plain-packaged cigarette. Conclusions: After controlling the visual and touch sensations, participants were not able to differentiate between branded and plain-packaged cigarettes in terms of taste or inducing immediate shortness of breath or cough. Interestingly, participants were not able to identify their favorite brand. Abstract Background: Saudi Arabia implemented a plain tobacco packaging regulation, one of the World Health Organization’s recommended initiatives to help reduce smoking rates, in August 2019. A few weeks after implementation, a large number of smokers complained via various media channels, especially social media (eg, Twitter), that an extreme change in cigarette taste had occurred, frequency of coughing had increased, and for some, shortness of breath had led to hospitalization. Objective: The main objective is to determine whether smokers blinded to cigarette branding report differences in taste between branded and unbranded cigarettes. The secondary objective is to observe the frequency of immediate cough or shortness of breath. Methods: This study employed a within-person, randomized crossover design that recruited current smokers 18 years and older who were cleared upon physical assessment before the experiment. Participants received 6 sequences of different random exposures (3 puffs) to 3 plain-packaged cigarettes (2 from their favorite brand and 1 from another brand as a control) and 3 branded cigarettes (2 from the favorite brand and 1 from another brand as a control). Participants wore virtual reality goggles accompanied by special software to alter visual reality and gloves to alter the touch sensation. Results: This study recruited 18 participants, measured at 6 time points, to produce 108 experiments. Participants were not able to identify the correct type of cigarettes (plain or branded, estimate of fixed effect=−0.01, P=.79). Moreover, there were no differences in the ability of the participants to identify their favorite brand (t107=−0.63, mean 0.47, P=.53). In terms of immediate coughing, out of the 108 experiments, 1 episode of short coughing was observed, which was attributed to the branded cigarette, not the plain-packaged cigarette. Conclusions: After controlling the visual and touch sensations, participants were not able to differentiate between branded and plain-packaged cigarettes in terms of taste or inducing immediate shortness of breath or cough. Interestingly, participants were not able to identify their favorite brand.