The tobacco industry is innovating faster than San Francisco can regulate — no easy feat in the city that led the charge against indoor smoking, flavored tobacco, and e-cigarettes.
The industry’s latest trick doesn’t even contain tobacco, in many cases, instead isolating the cravable, joltable active ingredient of tobacco products. Nicotine pouches, like the popular brand Zyn, are a sort of cross between nicotine gum and dipping tobacco. They add a high-tech, user-friendly sheen to a form of nicotine ingestion that might otherwise be seen, at least here in San Francisco, as a decidedly un-sexy way to get your fix. And for nicotine novices, the buzz is no joke.
According to the latest industry data and anecdotal accounts from local smoke shops and corner stores, this new product category is taking America and San Francisco by storm. If Zyn and its peers ever get to Juul-like levels of popularity, the implications for public health and, let’s be real, a new generation of memers and hypebeasts, remain unclear.
There are indications that nicotine pouches are considerably safer than cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and perhaps even e-cigarettes, but little is known about their long term health effects. And while they have potential as a “harm reduction” tobacco alternative for people who are already hooked, they also have the potential to get more kids and novices addicted in the first place.
“We’re in the middle of a decade-long national experiment to see what happens when new nicotine delivery products flood the marketplace,” says Benjamin Chaffee, an epidemiologist and tobacco researcher at UCSF. “There’s quite a bit we don’t know about nicotine separate from cigarette smoke. The assumption is, it’ll be much less harmful, and I think it’s safe to say it will be less harmful. But how much less harmful is still an active debate.”
What’s a Zyn?
The most popular brand of nicotine pouch by far is Zyn, owned by the company Swedish Match, based out of, you guessed it, Sweden. That makes sense, since nicotine pouches are an evolution on Swedish Snus, a two-century old form of tobacco ingestion consisting of finely powdered tobacco packaged in individual pouches. Nicotine pouches are essentially the same, except instead of powdered tobacco, they usually contain synthetic nicotine sitting in a substance similar to chewing gum.
Unlike most forms of “sublabial” tobacco ingestion — products that get absorbed into the body via the lips and gums — the juice that leaches from nicotine pouches isn’t toxic, meaning there’s no need to spit. Users may also notice that nicotine pouches don’t sting quite like other forms of chew. That means “modern oral products” like Zyn, Velo, Dryft, Rogue, and On!, to use industry parlance, are fairly discrete to consume — no nasty plastic bottle full of dip spit here — and arguably offer a lower barrier to entry than their more medieval counterparts.
Zyn is, without a doubt, a powerful stimulant, as a few samplings by this writer can attest. The main event is not unlike chugging a thermos of coffee, complete with an elevated heart rate and attendant jitteriness. People who are not regular nicotine users would be wise to mete out their consumption, and take out their pouch well before the hour the company says users can keep it in their mouth. For the uninitiated, leaving your Zyn in for too long can be a one-way ticket to yak city. Lesser side-effects include lightheadedness and hiccuping. It would take quite a few puffs of the Juul to achieve these effects.
While they still make up a relatively small slice of the tobacco and tobacco-adjacent market, nicotine pouches clearly are rising in popularity. Zyn, which currently makes up about two-thirds of U.S. nicotine pouch sales, went from delivering fewer than 20 million tins in the first quarter of 2019 to more than 120 million in the first quarter of 2021, according to the company’s latest investor report. Swedish Match estimates the nicotine pouch market to be about 6 percent of the total cigarette market in the western United States, by number of units sold. Convenience store sales of nicotine pouches were up 470 percent between January and July 2020, according to Nielsen sales figures reported by CSP News. (A Swedish Match representative did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
In San Francisco, perhaps the most restricted tobacco market in the country, Zyn is rapidly gaining traction. Out of a dozen smoke shops and corner stores I visited last week in the Castro, SoMa, and the Mission, three store owners said they had begun carrying Zyn over the past month.
“I carried it upon request,” says Sam Dughman, owner of Rossi’s Deli on Castro, noting that many would-be customers had come in asking for Zyn and left disappointed.
However, Dughman and other store owners who recently began carrying the product haven’t yet found it to be the boon they hoped. “It’s been a little disappointing, to be honest,” says Mike Zeidan, owner of Randa’s Market on 16th Street, which began selling Zyn about a month ago.
Zyn is attractive to sellers and buyers of nicotine products in a city where many forms of tobacco are banned, including flavored cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco; and virtually all e-cigarettes. Miriam Zouzounis, owner of Ted’s Market in SoMa and the president of the Neighborhood Business Alliance, wrote in an email, “We believe [nicotine pouches] to be a growing category in the sector due to the bans on other products.” Store owners report that former “vapers” are increasingly turning to nicotine pouches, she wrote.
Recreating the alchemy that transformed Juul into a multi-billion-dollar brand — and got 30 percent of high school seniors to try vaping in 2018, according to National Institutes of Health researchers — won’t be easy, but Zyn might have the inside track. If “the Juul craze is fundamentally ironic,” as Jia Tolentino wrote in the New Yorker in 2018, the emerging Zyn phenomenon is shaping up to be absurdist.
These undetectable pouches create the opportunity for a private buzz in public spaces, including places where smoking, or God forbid, dipping, would be completely inappropriate. Soft boys and basic girls who wouldn’t be caught dead chomping chew can giggle about their newfound vice, unlocking a whole new world of wordplay (think: Howard, think: sin). Of course, there’s nothing more absurd than the banal road to addiction; the edgy party trick becoming a weekday craving; the safer alternative leading right back to a good, old-fashioned wad of Copenhagen.
For public health researchers, the big concern about all new-fangled tobacco delivery systems, from Juul to Zyn, is youth consumption. “It’s not just the health effects of using the products themselves, per se, but also, from a larger population perspective, whether the introduction of these products pull in new users to nicotine and tobacco who otherwise wouldn’t have touched it,” Chaffee says.
According to the Truth Initiative, an anti-tobacco advocacy group, 13 percent of 15-24 year olds surveyed in the fall of 2020 reported using a nicotine pouch product in the previous 30 days. “Those numbers are comparable to what we were seeing with e-cigarettes, say 2012, 2013 ballpark,” Chaffee says. However, he notes that in his own survey of 1,400 teens across northern and central California, fewer than five percent of respondents report using nicotine pouches, and fewer than half have even heard of them.
While Zyn could be in the early stages of a Juul-like trajectory, it’s just as plausible it could end up more like Camel Orbs, a dissolvable nicotine mint product that flopped in the 2000s.
Beyond the threat of kids or people who otherwise wouldn’t have used nicotine getting hooked, there are few clear health risks to nicotine pouches for adults. Because it’s technically a “tobacco free” product, Zyn does not contain any known carcinogens.
“Nicotine pouches are gaining market share, but little is known about their chemistry or potential health risks, including any potential cancer risk,” Stephen Stanfill, a tobacco researcher at the CDC and the lead author of one of the few academic studies on nicotine pouches, wrote in an email. “Because nicotine pouches may appeal to a spectrum of users — from novice to experienced users — it is important to include these emerging tobacco products in tobacco control research, policy, and practice.”
Nicotine itself is known to be risky only for specific sub-populations, including youth, pregnant women, and people with heart problems. However, nicotine addiction can lead to cigarette smoking, “which is about the most dangerous health behavior you could possibly engage in,” Chaffee says. Chewing tobacco greatly increases the risk of gum and mouth cancers.
As for the effects of regularly sticking a nicotine pouch into your cheek, “It’s certainly plausible that exposure to nicotine in the mouth could, for instance, change the micro flora environment, the bacteria and viruses that live in the mouth,” Chaffee says. “That may make the mouth more or less susceptible to gum disease, let’s say. But that’s not known.”
A big reason why researchers know so little about nicotine pouches, or e-cigarettes for that matter, is that these products have yet to go through the FDA authorization process. They currently exist in a regulatory netherworld shrouded in a cloud vapor.
Since 2007, new tobacco products have required FDA authorization, but none so far, including all brands of e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches, have received it.
“It’s the Wild West right now,” Chaffee says. “The FDA has pretty much signaled that they either don’t have the capacity or the willingness to be serious about enforcing unauthorized products.”
Instead, the FDA has allowed new products to come to market, only to apply for authorization later. The most recent deadline for submitting an application was September, when thousands of brands submitted applications for millions of products, according to the FDA. The FDA has a self-imposed deadline of September 2021 to respond to those applications, but Chaffee believes, and the FDA itself acknowledges, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so in time. In a press release, an FDA spokesperson wrote, “We will focus resources on products where scientific review will have the greatest public health impact, based on their market share,” which means we might be able to expect a verdict on Juul and Zyn sooner rather than later.
Whenever those authorizations — or denials — are released will be a big moment for the tobacco industry, with the U.S. government finally weighing in on the safety of its latest products. It will be a big moment for San Francisco, too, whose e-cigarette ban technically only includes products that are unauthorized by the FDA.
At that point, tobacco industry regulation will be at a crossroads. Some advocacy organizations hold out hope for a tobacco-free society, while others strive for more of a harm-reduction approach. The FDA appeared headed in the latter direction in the mid 2000s when it signalled an interest in decreasing the nicotine content of cigarettes, while creating a more robust marketplace of harm-reduction nicotine alternatives, Chaffee says. In reality, the FDA opened up the marketplace without creating many new restrictions on cigarettes.
If nicotine pouches and vapes are ever to become a force for good, cigarettes will need to be harder to come by, Chaffee says. “I think to reach a point where harm reduction is actually successful, it needs to be coupled with really strong tobacco control policies that make cigarettes and the most dangerous products more expensive, less accessible, less appealing, and less addictive.”