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'Stay the hell away from our kids': Why Canada's health minister sent a stern warning about nicotine pouches

Health Minister Mark Holland sent a stern warning to tobacco companies he claimed are promoting their products to youth.

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Health experts in Canada are raising concerns about nicotine pouches and the possible harm they can have on kids. (Photo via Getty Images)
Health experts in Canada are raising concerns about nicotine pouches and the possible harm they can have on kids. (Photo via Getty Images)

Why is Canada's health minister talking about nicotine pouches?

Health Minister Mark Holland promised a major crackdown on nicotine pouches on Wednesday, accusing a tobacco company of exploiting a loophole to get its product approved in Canada.

During a press conference, Holland noted Imperial Tobacco Canada has branded flavoured nicotine pouches called Zonnic as an aid to quit smoking. He added the pouches are being used to hook a new generation on nicotine, sharing a stern warning to tobacco companies that might be marketing to children.

"I would say to the tobacco companies that continue to look for ways to use loopholes to addict people to their products, get away, stay the hell away from our kids," he said.

"To me, it is absolutely essential that we see these products move behind counter."

Holland has written to provinces about his plans to restrict access to Zonnic, as well as the flavours and marketing that can be used.

"Whatever dark corner the tobacco industry crawls and creeps into to go after our children, wherever they go, whatever loophole they think they can find, they will meet me like an iron wall," Holland shared.

Minister of Health Mark Holland had stern remarks about nicotine pouches during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 20. (The Canadian Press/Spencer Colby)
Minister of Health Mark Holland had stern remarks about nicotine pouches during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 20. (The Canadian Press/Spencer Colby)

What is Zonnic?

Currently, Zonnic is the only oral pouch approved as nicotine replacement therapy in Canada. Each pouch contains four milligrams of nicotine and they're designed to be placed under a person's upper lip so nicotine can be absorbed through the gums.

The products come in round, colourful containers that resemble candy or gum packages, and they're also sold in flavours such as "berry frost" and "tropical breeze."

Health Canada approved the sale of these nicotine pouches last year under the Natural Health Product Regulations, but without a minimum age limit.

Imperial Tobacco Canada noted its product is "a new option to help" people quit smoking that contains no tobacco. It has further stated it aims to prevent youth from accessing Zonnic, implementing an age-verification process or online orders, requiring retailers to ask consumers for identification and displaying an "18+" label on its marketing and packaging.


Why are health experts raising concerns about nicotine pouches?

In November, the Canadian Cancer Society accused Imperial Tobacco Canada of "aggressively marketing" its product, noting in-store promotions for the pouches can be found near racks of candy and chocolate bars. While Quebec and British Columbia have already moved to put nicotine pouches behind counters at pharmacies, several advocacy groups are pushing for more regulations.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said in November that little is known about the health effects of nicotine pouches.

"The problem with these products is they are introduced without any disclosure or testing, or any sense of what the public health impact is," she shared during a media conference.

"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."


Are nicotine pouches only a concern in Canada?

Health Canada issued a safety alert on Wednesday, urging people to only use nicotine pouches as directed and to avoid unauthorized products.

"They should not be used recreationally, by non-smokers, by people under the age of 18, or by others at risk of nicotine's toxic effects," the alert said.

Since nicotine pouches have begun hitting markets worldwide, other countries have announced full-on sale bans for nicotine pouches. In February, Australia's federal government condemned the "widespread marketing" of nicotine pouches to young people, adding it's "deeply concerned." Other countries, like the Netherlands, Belgium and New Zealand have banned sales of nicotine pouches.

In the United States, they're regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and subject to age restrictions, a nicotine health warning and pre-market assessment. Some countries, including Brazil, Iran and Thailand, regulate nicotine pouches under tobacco products.

Nicotine pouches are positioned between the upper lip and gum, resembling Swedish-style snus besides the tobacco. (Photo via Getty Images)
Nicotine pouches are positioned between the upper lip and gum, resembling Swedish-style snus besides the tobacco. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are the alternatives to nicotine pouches?

Nicotine pouches resemble the Swedish-style snus minus the tobacco leaf, where the user puts it in their mouth between the upper lip and gum.

Currently, the long-term health effects of using nicotine pouches are unknown. Some side effects include gum irritation, sore mouth, hiccups, nausea and nicotine addiction, according to Nebraska Medicine. Experts also suggest smokers use approved products like nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, nasal spray or inhalers to wean off nicotine.

People addicted to nicotine can also adopt lifestyle changes, like meditation, trying new hobbies, drinking plenty of water, eating healthy foods and practicing mindfulness.


Perspectives

Health minister is 'incredibly concerned'

Canadian Minister of Health Mark Holland noted in a press release on Wednesday that he's "incredibly concerned" about the growing use of nicotine replacement therapies — particularly nicotine pouches — among youth.

"Excessive amounts of nicotine can cause overdose or acute poisoning, which can lead to respiratory failure and death," he warned.

Holland also indicated he has become aware of "gaps and weaknesses" in the regulation of these products and that Health Canada will implement short-term safeguards to help protect youth.

Imperial Tobacco Canada hits back

Following the health minister's remarks, Imperial Tobacco called them "unfounded."

"It's about lives and choices, not just a product," the company shared on X, previously known as Twitter, on Wednesday. "Evidence over rhetoric: Let's prioritize safe quitting methods."

Eric Gagnon, Imperial Tobacco Canada's vice president of legal and external affairs, shared in a response in Ottawa that the company went through a two-year assessment process with Health Canada. He noted Holland's accusations the company figured out a loophole to sell its product "couldn't be further from the truth."

Imperial Tobacco Canada's Eric Gagnon explained in Ottawa the company went through a two-year assessment process with Health Canada to get Zonnic approved. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)
Imperial Tobacco Canada's Eric Gagnon explained in Ottawa the company went through a two-year assessment process with Health Canada to get Zonnic approved. (The Canadian Press/Justin Tang)

A needed move to protect youth

On Thursday, the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) supported the federal government's decision to implement new measures surrounding nicotine pouches.

"Federal restrictions on the sale and marketing of nicotine pouches will help prevent nicotine addiction among youth and protect them from tobacco industry marketing strategies," CCS senior policy analyst Rob Cunningham said in a news release. "We need to ensure the dramatic rise in youth vaping does not happen all over again."

E-cigarette deja vu

In November, several experts were shocked at Health Canada's decision to approve Zonnic — especially amid high vaping rates amongst teens in the country.

"Have we not learned our lessons from e-cigarettes?" Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada shared in a news release last year. "Given the increase in youth vaping, how is it possible that Health Canada would allow a new category of nicotine product on the market? ... How can it possibly be legal to sell to children flavoured nicotine products from a tobacco company?"

Canada has some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world, according to Health Canada data released earlier this year. (Photo via Getty Images)
Canada has some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world, according to Health Canada data released earlier this year. (Photo via Getty Images)

Data released last year by Health Canada shows the country has some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world. Among the more than 61,000 students surveyed between grades 7 and 12, eight per cent vaped daily, with that number closer to 12 per cent for respondents between grades 10 and 12. A study released in September also found nearly 50 per cent of young Canadians have tried vaping.

More support from groups

The Heart and Stroke Foundation lauded the federal government's decision to stop nicotine pouches from getting into the hands of youth.

"As health advocates, we are long familiar with the methods the tobacco industry uses to hook youth on its products. First it was cigarettes. Then it was vaping. Now it's nicotine pouches that risk addicting a whole new generation," CEO Doug Roth said in a news release. "We're thrilled that Minister Holland is taking steps to stop this cycle and protect youth."

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