‘Stay the hell away from our kids’: Health minister vows to restrict nicotine pouches — but how?


Canada’s health minister says he’ll seek extra authority to restrict the marketing and sale of flavoured nicotine pouches to youth, but it’s unclear exactly how he’ll do that or how quickly it will happen.

“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,” Mark Holland said while speaking to reporters in the House of Commons Wednesday.

Health Canada has also announced it will “explore legislation and regulatory options” to protect youth from the risks of nicotine replacement therapies, including pouches.

The department released a public advisory on Wednesday warning Canadians about their misuse, saying the amount of nicotine each pouch contains is usually recommended for adults who smoke 25 or more cigarettes a day.

The measures come five months after a group of national health organizations urged Ottawa to act swiftly to prevent the products from ending up in the hands of teenagers.

WATCH | Tough talk about nicotine pouches: 

Marketing of nicotine pouches must stay ‘away from our kids,’ says health minister

Minister of Health Mark Holland says he has written to provinces and territories asking for their cooperation on restricting the sale of nicotine pouches with flavours that appeal to children.

Fruity flavours

Last July, Health Canada approved Zonnic, the only nicotine pouch authorized for sale in Canada. Produced by cigarette manufacturer Imperial Tobacco, it is marketed as a drug to help smokers quit. Users place the pouch inside their mouth against their gums.

Since Zonnic does not contain tobacco and isn’t inhaled, it doesn’t fall under any existing federal or provincial tobacco, smoking or vaping legislation. It also doesn’t require a prescription, since it contains less than four milligrams of nicotine.

Instead, Zonnic pouches were authorized under Canada’s natural health product regulations — with no restrictions on how they are advertised, where they’re sold, or at what age someone can buy them.

An ad for Zonnic shows three hands holding round, colourful packages over a bright blue background.
An ad for Zonnic posted in October after the flavoured nicotine pouches hit shelves in Canada. Health groups worry the packaging, fruity flavours, and youthful ads appeal to kids. (Zonnic Canada/Instagram)

Groups like the Canadian Cancer Society say Zonnic’s fruity flavours and bright-coloured packaging resemble candy, and that its advertisements on social media platforms like Instagram target kids. The pouches are sold behind the counters of gas stations and convenience stores, with print advertisements found on store counters next to candy bars.

While Ottawa approved Zonnic for sale in Canada, it’s been up to the provinces to play catch up with regulating it.

Last month B.C. said it would restrict the sale of Zonnic by moving it behind pharmacy counters; a rule already in place in Quebec. Holland signaled he wants the rest of the country to follow suit.

An advertisement for Zonnic, flavoured nicotine pouches, is found on a Canadian convenience store counter next to candy.
An advertisement for Zonnic at an Ottawa convenience store counter next to candy, taken in November. The product labelling says it’s not intended for use for anyone under the age of 18 but Canada currently doesn’t have any regulations preventing it from being sold to children. (Canadian Cancer Society)

Holland says he’s written to his provincial and territorial counterparts asking to work with them to restrict the flavours of nicotine replacement products. 

“I want to get rid of flavours that attract kids,” Holland said.

Holland also wants Health Canada to approve any advertisements.

“Your marketing? You’ve got to show us before you put it out the door,” he said.

Holland said he hopes to bring in the measures “as soon as possible,” but it’s unclear exactly how he’ll do it, saying he doesn’t have the power right now.

Health groups have warned of the consequences of failing to act quickly — pointing to how vaping was initially allowed into the Canadian market with few regulations. The country now has some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world.

“The tobacco industry was able to addict a whole new cohort of young people, who had no exposure to nicotine, to something that’s absolutely deadly for their health,” Holland said. “We cannot allow that to happen again.”

In an interview with CBC News last week, Holland said his office was working on a way to change legislation to ensure future loopholes couldn’t be used by tobacco companies.

“This is a very litigious industry. They’ve already threatened to sue me,” he said. 

“I’m coming for this as fast as I possibly can, but … our department has to make sure that the actions we take are defendable in court.”

‘Self-regulated’

A spokesperson for Imperial Tobacco says the company has followed the rules and underwent a two-year assessment through Health Canada, demonstrating Zonnic’s safety and usefulness in helping adults quit smoking.

“The actual loophole is the absence of a legal minimum age for purchasing NRTs [nicotine replacement therapies] in Canada, allowing kids to access these products over the counter,” said Eric Gagnon.

Gagnon says Imperial requires any retailer selling Zonnic to keep it behind their counter and request ID.

“That is self-regulated,” he said.

Gagnon said after speaking with Health Canada, Imperial has made changes, voluntarily removing parts of its advertising campaign featuring young people and placing the 18+ age label more clearly on its package.

“We have no interest in seeing youth get their hands on this product,” Gagnon said.

Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, said Ottawa must not rely on Imperial to make the changes needed to keep kids from becoming addicted to nicotine pouches.

“Simply saying on a package that it can’t be sold to youth is completely inadequate, because we know that youth are getting these,” Cunningham said, adding that stores that sell Zonnic to youth would currently face no charges or fines, effectively making it legal for them to sell to kids.

“We need to protect youth with solid legislative measures, not just claims from the tobacco industry.”



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