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Are nicotine pouches the new vapes?

Are nicotine pouches the new vapes?

Gen Z will do anything but smoke a cigarette. We’d rather huff on Elf bars, Lost Marys, or hookah pipes – and apparently, there’s even been an uptick in young people smoking cigars and pipes. Now, the latest way of getting your nicotine fix without lighting up a Pall Mall is via a nicotine pouch.

Nicotine pouches are small sachets of nicotine, usually stored in round tins, which users tuck under their lip as the nicotine is absorbed into their bloodstream. Popular brands like Velo and Nordic Spirit sell pouches in a range of flavours, such as “ice cool” and “bergamot wildberry”. While nicotine pouch usage is still relatively rare in the UK, with only one in 300 adults using pouches, the number of people who use nicotine pouches is gradually rising. In addition, a report released in October 2023 by Polaris Market Research revealed that the global value of the nicotine pouch market looks set to soar by $25.2 billion over the next decade.

Notably, most users are young men. 22-year-old Dylan is one of them. Dylan has used nicotine pouches for a year, after first trying them in a bid to quit smoking and vaping. “I was out one night and my mate offered me one, so I thought ‘alright, I’ll give it a go’,” he says. “Ever since then, I haven’t looked back.” He’s noticed an improvement in his respiratory health since ditching cigarettes, and that the switch to pouches has proved more cost-effective too. Amir, 24, had a similar experience. “I find pouches to be much less addictive than vaping or smoking,” he says. “The number I use in a day is easier to control than the amount I would smoke in a day.”

It’s possible the tobacco-free products which remain legal in the UK are even safer than snus. “Toxicological studies show that [modern nicotine pouches] contain fewer toxicants and carcinogens than tobacco-containing snus,” Tattan-Birch says. He stresses that long-term evidence is needed to come to any concrete conclusion on potential harms caused by nicotine pouches, but he adds that his “tentative view is that these products are likely to be the least harmful consumer nicotine product on the market.”

Still, it’s worth stressing that these pouches aren’t entirely harmless. Some research suggests that they could impact dental health and cause receding gums. Moreover, nicotine is an addictive chemical which carries physical and mental health risks and has been associated with high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attacks. So it’s worrying that nicotine pouch use is slowly but steadily increasing among young people, given the aggressive marketing tactics used by companies behind these nicotine pouch brands.

Tattan-Birch recently worked on a research paper titled Sports, Gigs and TikToks, which unpacked how pouches are relentlessly marketed to young people. “For instance, several music festivals are now sponsored by either Nordic Spirit or Velo, where they often have stalls handing out free samples to festival-goers. The McLaren Formula 1 team also has a prominent Velo sponsorship, and many footballers have been spotted sharing pictures of themselves with nicotine pouches on social media,” he explains.

As brands like Velo and Nordic Spirit don’t contain tobacco, in the UK they can legally be sold to under-18s and are not subject to the same advertising restrictions imposed on tobacco-related products like vapes (although a new bill could soon change this). Essentially, while Elf Bars can’t be advertised via glamorous influencer collaborations posted on TikTok, nicotine pouches can. “The risk is that these adverts might attract not only young people who currently smoke or vape, but also those who would otherwise avoid nicotine entirely,” Tattan-Birch says.

Despite never being a regular smoker, 22-year-old Will* started using nicotine pouches with his friends while away on university field trips. “I’d get sore from climbing mountains and needed more than painkillers to help keep me going,” he explains. Will adds that as he’s a keen basketball player, pouches appeal to him as they ensure his “lungs stay healthy”. Now, Will compulsively uses pouches. “I’m probably more addicted than I think,” he concedes. He tries to stick to one pouch per day, but may get through two or three “extra strong” pouches on a night out. “Sometimes I’ll even have one before I go to bed, even if I usually can’t sleep afterwards,” he says. “I quit recently too, for a month or so, but I came back on a whim.”

It’s too early to say whether significant numbers of non-smokers will get hooked on nicotine via pouches like Will. And as Tattan-Birch says, pouches are probably the least harmful nicotine product on the market right now, so we shouldn’t be too hasty in calling for an all-out ban just yet. In any case, it’s a trend which is likely to stick around for the foreseeable. Others are dubious that a product as unglamorous as a nicotine pouch could ever catch on – but let’s not forget that Elf Bar managed to get swathes of grown adults hooked on suckling neon pink, plastic sticks.

*Name has been changed

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