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What are nicotine pouches? Why health experts are sounding the alarm in Canada

Click to play video: 'Canadian health experts urge feds take action on flavoured Nicotine pouches'
Canadian health experts urge feds take action on flavoured Nicotine pouches
WATCH: Canadian health experts urge feds take action on flavoured nicotine pouches – Nov 14, 2023

The introduction of nicotine pouches to the Canadian market has raised concerns among health experts, who are urging prompt regulation due to the legal availability of these products to children.

On Tuesday, a group of Canadian health organizations, including the Canadian Cancer Society, urged the federal government to restrict the availability of nicotine pouches, saying the product contains “a highly addictive drug.”

“This is the first time in more than 100 years in Canada that it is legal to sell to children, nicotine products from a tobacco company,” Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, said during a media conference. “What happened is incomprehensible, but it has happened and how it needs to be fixed.”

On Oct. 12, Health Canada approved the sale of flavoured nicotine pouches from Imperial Tobacco, called Zonnic. According to the press release from the company, the product is a pouch that can help adult smokers quit by delivering nicotine to the body.

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However, health experts like Cunningham argue that without regulations similar to those governing cigarette smoking, children face the risk of becoming addicted to these products.

Click to play video: 'Canadian health experts call for immediate suspension of sales of nicotine pouches'
Canadian health experts call for immediate suspension of sales of nicotine pouches

“These nicotine pouches are clearly appealing to youth,” Cunningham added. “With attractive flavours such as Tropic Breeze, Chill Mint and Berry Frost, and with colourful, small packages that might well hold candy, of course, youth will want to buy them.  The devastating result is that youth will become trapped into nicotine addiction.”

Because of this potential harm, a group of health organizations — Action on Smoking and Health, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Lung Association, the Heart & Stroke Foundation and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, are asking Health Canada to create tighter rules.

At the media conference Tuesday, the experts urged the federal government to reclassify the nicotine pouches as a prescription product (meaning they will be sold only in pharmacies) or to suspend the sale of them until “the regulatory gap is closed.”

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What are nicotine pouches?

Nicotine pouches, positioned between the upper lip and gum, resemble Swedish-style snus but lack the tobacco leaf. They are typically used as a smokeless alternative to traditional tobacco products, according to a 2023 article published in the British Dental Journal.

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The products are becoming increasingly popular around the world as they are likely to be a substantially “lower-risk product” as compared to tobacco smoking, the article stated.

Nicotine pouches, being relatively new, lack extensive research, with only a small amount of published papers available, the article stated. Because of this, there is currently a lack of evidence to “evaluate the absolute health effects of these specific products.”

“It’s been on the market for a couple of weeks already, it’s a nicotine replacement therapy,”  Eric Gagnon, vice president for legal and external affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada, told Global News.

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“We had to go through an application process with Health Canada. It took a little bit less than two years by lengthy process, complicated process. But we did manage to demonstrate that it does help people quit smoking. So, we were granted a license.”

But because the pouches come in an array of flavours, experts believe this may play a significant role in drawing youth to tobacco products.

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New vaping regulations

“We know very little about the health effects of these products. I think there are reasons that many people would consider them safer than smoking. But when it comes to a young person’s use that is an irrelevant consideration. The problem with these products is they are introduced without any disclosure or testing, or any sense of what the public health impact is,” Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said during the media conference.

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“We don’t know, in the same way, we didn’t know how dangerous cigarettes were 100 years ago. Waiting for a whole generation to use these products before we have available epidemiology is not useful.”

Gagnon said it’s “unfortunate” the product is being targeted, as the company has demonstrated to Health Canada that it helps adult smokers quit.

He believes if there are more regulations added to the nicotine pouch than “adult smokers are going to be the ones who are going to pay the price.”

He also said the company has marketing conditions at stores where it’s being sold.

“It was made clear that this has to be behind the counter. And even though it’s not regulated, we’ve asked that everybody that buys the product is a verified adult.”

What other countries are doing

“Nicotine is a highly addictive drug, one that can lead to a lifetime of addiction. Worldwide countries are scrambling to address this new product, some are banning its recreational use and others are strictly regulating,” Terry Dean, president and CEO of the Canadian Lung Association, said during the media release.

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“Requiring nicotine pouches to be sold by prescription only could be done quickly and easily. The need for immediate action is all the more necessary given that other companies are already seeking approval to sell nicotine pouches, which would make the problem even worse.”

In April, the Netherlands announced it was banning the sale of all types of nicotine pouches. And as of October, nicotine pouches are no longer allowed to be sold in Belgium.

While some countries have banned the use of the product, others like Denmark and Kenya are regulating the use of nicotine pouches under their existing tobacco laws.

If Canada does not take action, Cunningham said it will “become a significant problem” unless tighter laws are put in place.

“Nicotine products lead to smoking, not nicotine products leading to quitting,” said Stephanie Lawrence, senior manager of communication at the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

“There’s much more work to be done to support adult smokers to quit smoking, but allowing the tobacco industry to target our youth with its addictive products, is not the answer,” she said during Tuesday’s press conference.

“We have a small window of opportunity to keep these flavoured nicotine pouches out of the hands of the next generation. We missed this opportunity with e-cigarettes when they were legalized and we should not miss the opportunity we have before us today.”

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— With files from Global News’ Kyle Benning 

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