National health groups call on Ottawa to prevent sales of nicotine pouches to children

National health organizations are demanding the federal government immediately regulate the sale of flavoured nicotine pouches, a product Ottawa approved for sale in July with no restrictions on how it’s advertised or who can buy it.

“It is completely legal for stores to sell these nicotine pouches to children of any age,” Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, told a joint press conference in Ottawa Tuesday. 

“It simply boggles the mind.” 

The pouches, produced by cigarette manufacturer Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd., do not contain tobacco but do contain nicotine, a drug Health Canada says is as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

“It may say on the label that the product is only intended for those over age 18, but this is useless,” Cunningham said. “A retailer that sells to minors will face no offence, no charges and no fines.”

Approved under the Natural Health Product Regulations under the name Zonnic, sales of the pouches as a smoking cessation product started in October at gas stations and corner stores.

But health organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Lung Association argue these products are being deliberately marketed to children.

“These products are attractive to youth. They come in appealing flavours. They come in containers that could well hold candy. Of course youth are going to be interested in them,” Cunningham said.

“Imperial Tobacco is using classic lifestyle advertising we saw for cigarettes as promoting these addictive products in places where youth are exposed, such as convenience stores and Instagram.”

Multiple health groups say they fear that Zonnic, which hit Canadian shelves in October, is specifically targeting young people. There are no age restrictions limiting who can purchase the flavoured nicotine pouches. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Health groups looking for sale suspension

The health organizations aren’t looking for an outright ban of the nicotine pouches — but they want Health Canada to reclassify them as a prescription product or suspend their sale until regulations are brought in to prevent them from being sold to children.

Both approaches, the groups say, could be done quickly without regulatory changes.

They also want Ottawa to impose a temporary moratorium on the approval of any new nicotine pouch products or any new category of products under Canada’s natural health regulations.

“It’s just a matter of time before there is going to be widespread use, unless action is taken,” Cunningham said.

CBC News has reached out to Health Canada and has not received a response.

“We are looking at this closely to ensure that these products are sold for the purpose for which they were approved,” wrote Christopher Aoun, press secretary for Health Minister Mark Holland.

“We are deeply concerned of reports of tobacco companies marketing nicotine products, such as pouches, to children and those under 18.”

An ad shows a man on a bus with a slightly suprised expression with writing that says "pop it in your mouth"
An ad for Zonnic, flavoured nicotine pouches sold in Canada, posted last month on the company’s Instagram account. (Zonnic Canada/Instagram)

Imperial Tobacco wants to sell in pharmacies

Imperial Tobacco Canada said it applied for approval for Zonnic in Canada nearly two years ago. It said it ultimately wants to sell the product in pharmacies, which takes longer to approve than retail sales elsewhere.

“It’s part of our journey to create a better tomorrow,” said Eric Gagnon, vice president of legal and external affairs for Imperial Tobacco Canada.

“We know that there’s a lot of adult consumers and a lot of adult smokers that want to quit smoking, but it’s not always easy.”

Zonnic is classified as a natural health product, not a pharmaceutical, Gagnon said, since it contains 4 mg or less of nicotine.

“These health groups have been fighting tobacco companies for decades in Canada, and everything that we try to do they always oppose it,” he said.

“They’re more concerned that tobacco companies are trying to reinvent themselves. We recognize the health risk associated with smoking and we believe it’s fair for us to put a less harmful alternative to cigarettes on the market. But they don’t like that.”

Gagnon said all the product’s ads on social media are targeted at adults 25 years and older and they instruct retailers not to sell the products to minors.

“These products are not for kids,” he said.

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 began to be sold in Canada. Health groups say the packaging is similar to candy packaging and would easily appeal to youth. (Zonnic Canada/Instagram)

But the health groups point to Ottawa’s failure to restrict advertising of vaping products when they came onto the market in 2018. Canada now has some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world.

“The federal government didn’t clamp down on the advertising for over a year. They waited for the problem to become apparent,” said Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, adding that Ottawa waited for data on youth vaping to come in before restricting marketing.

“We know very little, actually, about the health effects of these products … in the same way we didn’t know about cigarettes 100 years ago.

“Most people who become addicted to nicotine do so during their adolescence. We have to learn a lesson from the vaping experience.”

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