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Influence, Manipulation & Deceit

Oral nicotine pouches: addiction in a new package

Published May 6, 2024
Zyn pouches

How Big Tobacco’s “harm reduction” strategy is a lie

The world’s deadliest industry is trying to rebrand itself as your friend, and oral nicotine pouches are just another one of the tobacco industry’s tricks to sell us on their most recent “harm reduction” strategy.1234567

A major component of Big Tobacco’s rebranding strategy is marketing some of their products as “tobacco-free.”8 By separating tobacco from nicotine, the tobacco industry hopes to pin all the harms of their products on tobacco and transform nicotine into an innocent chemical no more addictive or harmful than a cup of coffee.9 

There’s just one big problem: Nicotine is dangerous, regardless of the form it comes in. Nicotine is a deadly poison, neurotoxin, and chemical known to be as addictive as heroin.10 

But that hasn’t stopped Big Tobacco from using oral nicotine pouches in its latest marketing ploy to claim it’s solving the problem it created – the smoking epidemic. Nicotine is the common thread in Big Tobacco’s bait and switch. After years of addicting and killing our loved ones with cigarettes, the tobacco industry should be taking its last gasps – and that’s exactly why it’s banking on new products like oral nicotine pouches.111213 

Over the last 35 years, California has stood up to the tobacco industry in major ways — and it’s paid off. We’ve reduced lung and bronchial cancer rates by more than 42%and achieved one of the lowest smoking rates in the country.1415 We’ve even helped U.S. smoking rates hit an all-time low.16 

With widespread knowledge of the dangers of tobacco, and cigarette use on the decline, tobacco executives needed an image makeover.17 So Big Tobacco rolled out new products and rebranded them as “safer” and “healthier” than the old, all with the goal to keep profits rolling in. 

What are oral nicotine pouches?

Oral nicotine pouches are similar to other smokeless tobacco products like chewing tobacco in that they are inserted between a person’s lips and gums and left there as the nicotine is absorbed into the body.18 However, instead of loose tobacco placed in the mouth, it’s a pouch of nicotine. 

Popular brands include Zyn by Philip Morris International (PMI), Rogue by Swisher International, On! by Altria, and Velo by British American Tobacco (BAT).19 They are marketed as being discreet, “smoke-free, spit-free, and hands-free” making their use easier to conceal than cigarettes or vapes.820 Marketing executives know this and target these products to young people with an emphasis on “freedom,” particularly around how the user can choose to use the product anywhere and at any time.721  

One study’s results revealed that after seeing Zyn marketing, 13-20 year olds were more likely to buy Zyn if messages contained information about appealing flavors and feeling more comfortable in social situations.22 

The companies behind oral nicotine pouches also use tricky marketing tactics to make it sound safer, throwing around terms like “tobacco-free,” “pharmaceutical-grade nicotine,” and “food-grade ingredients.”2123 The tobacco industry has proven time and again they’re willing to do whatever it takes to turn a profit, including lying to the public and targeting kids.124   

What Big Tobacco executives fail to disclose is that using products containing highly addictive nicotine can lead to a life of dependency, which is a life absent of the very freedom of choice they promise.10  

How bad is nicotine for your body?

Nicotine is a toxic substance derived from tobacco plants, and consuming too much can cause vomiting, rapid heart rate, unsteadiness, seizures, coma, muscle weakness, and even death.25 Decades of independent research also shows how damaging nicotine is to the human body:

  • Nicotine is harmful to the heart, especially over the long-term. Nicotine spikes blood pressure and hardens arteries, and could increase the risk of heart attack.26   
  • Nicotine harms fetal development during pregnancy.27
  • Nicotine is harmful to the developing brain, rewiring neurological pathways and priming the brain for addiction of all kinds. It negatively impacts learning and attention, and increases anxiety, mood swings, and irritability.282930313233 
  • Nicotine is highly addictive, effectively taking away choice by creating a dependency.10 

What is in oral nicotine pouches, and how harmful are they?

Oral nicotine pouches contain nicotine salts which are designed to deliver high levels of nicotine with less irritation.2134 Since oral nicotine pouches are newer, we don’t know as much about them – but what we do know worries scientists and health officials.35

You may have already heard of nicotine salts, as they are one of the things that propelled the vaping company JUUL into the heights of infamy.3637 Tobacco company R.J. Reynolds originally patented nicotine salts when it was looking for a way to deliver much higher doses of nicotine to young people without getting them sick or burning their throats.36

JUUL used Reynolds’s original research from the 1970s to create its own version of nicotine salts for their pods.36 JUUL’s 5% pods contained up to 20 times the amount of nicotine in each cartridge than what’s in a single cigarette – and up to three times the level of nicotine as other e-cigarettes.3637

Today, nicotine pouch research is just beginning to uncover similar disturbing trends in levels of nicotine and their related health effects. According to one independent study in 2022, oral nicotine pouches contained a range of nicotine that researchers described as “alarmingly high.”38 The study found cancer-causing chemicals called tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) in more than half the samples of oral nicotine pouches researchers tested. TSNAs are the most harmful cancer-causing substances in smokeless tobacco, according to the American Cancer Society. And while TSNA levels can vary by product, the higher the level the greater the cancer risk.39 

Researchers also noted that the packaging for oral nicotine pouches often lacked proper labeling — meaning it would be nearly impossible for Californians to make informed decisions about using these products. Of course, this effectively takes away the freedom to choose a “healthier” alternative the industry says the product provides.394041

In addition to the serious health risks of using nicotine, a paper looking at a small sample of oral nicotine pouch users, some of whom also use cigarettes or vapes, were asked what negative side effects they experienced using oral nicotine pouches. Study participants reported mouth lesions and sore mouth and throat.42

US Nicotine Pouch Unit Sales Graph

It comes as no surprise that nicotine pouch use is now on the upswing among school-age children. In California, 1.1% of high schoolers reported using them regularly in 2023 – a number that nearly doubled in one year.4344 Nicotine pouches were also the number two most common tobacco product 8th graders used in 2023, second only to vapes.43

The same massive companies that created the cigarette and vaping epidemics are now pushing oral nicotine pouches to the market. Notably, Big Tobacco conglomerate PMI invested heavily in Zyn manufacturer Swedish Match, and eventually acquired the company in 2022.1345 They have even cited it as a major source of their new profit streams in their 2023 annual reports.46

Altria, a PMI competitor, also recently announced it would release their On! pouch with even higher levels of nicotine content than Zyn, meaning Big Tobacco’s leading players are racing each other to create the most addictive product on the market.18

Are oral nicotine pouches being marketed to kids?

We know that Big Tobacco cannot stay in business without addicting youth.10 Why? The industry knows that young people are the ones most vulnerable to addiction.47 We have long seen it play out with cigarettes, and more recently with vapes. Nearly 9 out of 10 adults who smoke began when they were kids – only 5% of adults who smoke started after age 24.2449

Big Tobacco’s business model, exposed in a 1980s R.J. Reynolds’ report, uses kids as “replacement smokers” for the hundreds of thousands of customers who die from their dangerous products every year.1050 

Big Tobacco's Business Model

Young people’s social media feeds are now flooded with Zyn content pushed out by popular influencers, like podcaster Joe Rogan and prank YouTube group the Nelk Boys – and even former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.1351 Influencers often share their enthusiasm for oral nicotine pouches while doing a flashy stunt or skit — such as delivering a giant can of Zyn to Tucker Carlson from a helicopter or acting out a performance of a 6th grader who needs a jolt from an oral nicotine pouch to perform in the spelling bee.13

@thenewstrending The Nelk Boys surprise Tucker Carlson with the largest Zyn tin in the world. #viraltiktok #viralvideo ♬ original sound - @TheNewsTrending

We know that in far too many instances, the tobacco industry’s predatory marketing is working exactly as they intend it to: more and more young people are giving oral nicotine pouches a try.2252 A study published in 2023 found that 16% of 15-24 year olds reported trying oral nicotine pouches, and we know that sales have only increased since then.5253

Oral nicotine pouches are new, but lying is Big Tobacco’s oldest trick

For decades, Big Tobacco’s playbook has been to market new product “innovations” as less harmful in a ploy to get new users hooked. 

The tobacco industry introduced cigarette “filters” in the 1950s, for example, as a marketing strategy to convince consumers that they could minimize the negative health effects of smoking — despite the fact that the industry knew “filters” had no such ability.54 It was Big Tobacco’s filter scam

Smokeless tobacco like chew and snus are generally thought to be safer than cigarettes because they don’t include the inhalation of smoke. But according to the American Cancer Society, no form of smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to cigarettes.39 And contrary to Big Tobacco’s rebrand committing to a “smokefree world,” smokeless tobacco is marketed as an alternative to use in places a person can’t smoke. This is promoting something called “dual use” or “poly use” which means using multiple products. So instead of reducing harm by quitting cigarettes altogether, Big Tobacco is promoting even more harm by using multiple products in different spaces, maximizing addiction and profits.5556

Vapes are another product the tobacco industry has used to hook a new generation on tobacco and  are another part of Big Tobacco’s hypocritical rebrand. 

Ultimately, with nicotine pouches being a relatively new product, research remains to be done on the associated short- and long-term health impacts. In the meantime, take it from an expert: Dr. Michael Ong, a practicing general internist, UCLA professor, and chair of the Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee, told Yahoo! News, “Although these products do not contain tobacco, nicotine has health harms and the safety profile for newer products like this has not been well evaluated.”57

Dr. Michael Ong

“Although these products do not contain tobacco, nicotine has health harms and the safety profile for newer products like this has not been well evaluated.”

Dr. Michael Ong

Though Big Tobacco is doing everything it can to hook a new generation on its products, we have the power to say no to its manipulative tactics, once and for all. California has 35 years of proven prevention strategies that have helped drive down smoking rates.58

Do oral nicotine pouches help a person quit smoking?

Oral nicotine pouches are not approved by the FDA for any use, including helping people quit nicotine. Oral nicotine pouches are not the same as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) – such as nicotine lozenges or gum – which are FDA-approved and regulated quit smoking products.59

NRT helps people wean off nicotine dependence and become free of all tobacco products. However, NRT may not be the right choice for everyone, and different quitting methods are available.  Using counseling and medication together gives someone the best chance of quitting for good.60 Learn more about quitting options.

Overcoming nicotine addiction is challenging, but quitting is possible with the right support. Visit Kick It California for free, personalized quitting support for adults.  Help a young person with nicotine addiction by referring to our guide with quit tips and recommendations, as well as a comprehensive list of existing youth and young-adult tobacco cessation resources and how to access services.​

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