Europe is building up a head of steam to wage the next war on Big Tobacco. And this time, it’s not over deadly cigarettes but a product that contains no tobacco at all — the seemingly innocuous nicotine pouch.
Still somewhat of an anomaly outside of Sweden, nicotine pouches are little bags of nicotine, flavoring and plant-based fibers that are placed under the lip to release a hit. Their popularity is growing: Analysis indicates that the market for nicotine pouches doubled between 2020 and 2021 in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.
While Sweden’s snus — a more well-known product — contains tobacco and is banned across the rest of the EU, nicotine pouches have until now escaped the beady regulatory eyes of Brussels bureaucrats because they don’t contain tobacco. That means there are no EU-level rules on the levels of nicotine allowed in pouches or what kind of labeling is allowed.
But long-expected revisions of the bloc’s laws on tobacco products, taxation and advertising could change all that. The current rules already cover e-cigarettes, which also do not contain tobaccco, and indications are that the Commission wants to use the revision to tighten the noose on nicotine pouches.
A potential ban, following the lead of Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Germany, could also be on the cards.
“I think that regulation is going to treat the tobacco industry as a nicotine industry,” said Philip Gorham, senior equity analyst at Morningstar, an investment research company. “I think we’ll see taxes being implemented on these products more akin to the way cigarettes have been taxed.”
A summary of the preliminary findings of a study on the EU’s tobacco control legislation, carried out for the Commission by research firm Open Evidence, suggests the ban on snus should be extended to nicotine pouches. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has also said that the growing popularity of nicotine pouches poses “serious public health concerns.”
Highly addictive, minimally regulated
While nicotine is highly addictive, there’s less consensus on its health impacts. A summary of expert presentations to the Parliament’s health committee, published in February, found that “the health risks [of nicotine pouches] reside primarily in the high nicotine content of certain products, leading to similar or higher contents of nicotine in users’ blood.”
A separate report by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment found that nicotine has strong effects on the cardiovascular system, and pouches are high risk for children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and those with cardiovascular disease.
But one of the central concerns is their potential appeal to young people. The Parliament report says that while nicotine pouches and other novel products like e-cigarettes, “provide alternatives to cigarette smokers, they have not proven to be risk-free, and may provide a gateway for (young) non-smokers into tobacco and nicotine consumption.”
MEP Nicolás González Casares’ office told POLITICO that “aggressive advertising” around nicotine pouches prompted him to submit a written question on whether the Commission intends to regulate nicotine pouches at the EU level.
In her response, Health Commissioner Kyriakides made clear the danger she believes these products pose — both to public health and to the internal market. She said “the regulation of emerging products, such as nicotine pouches … [are] at the core of the ongoing evaluation” of laws on tobacco products and advertising.
The Open Evidence study summary, marked “confidential” and seen by POLITICO, says the ban on tobacco for oral use, i.e. snus, “has been found to be highly successful in improving the internal market and ensuring a high level of health protection, even if some challenges are posed by new products as covered under the relevant criterion that require the ban to be extended to nicotine containing oral products.”
It also acknowledges that companies believe that extending the ban to nicotine pouches “will be detrimental for users intending on switching ‘to safer alternatives.’”
While the timeline around the bloc’s revision of its tobacco laws is still unclear, the apparent recommendation for a ban has riled up industry and some lawmakers, including MEP Charlie Weimers from the European Conservatives and Reformists group, who first tweeted about the leaked report.
Industry says: Bring on the (self-)regulation
Tobacco companies including Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco (BAT), Imperial Brands and Altria have been quick to move into the nicotine space, either through development of their own products or acquisitions of companies that produce pouches.
“The way industry works, they create a new product to avoid regulation as long as possible,” said Lilia Olefir, director of Smoke Free Partnership, a network that aims to promote tobacco control advocacy and research in the EU. During that time, the product is advertised on social media and presented as “lower risk,” she said.
But industry insists that nicotine pouches provide tobacco cigarette users with a less harmful alternative, and should be regulated separately — and less stringently — than snus or e-cigarettes.
In a document seen by POLITICO, major players including BAT, Imperial Brands and Japan Tobacco International, set out a self-regulatory framework for nicotine pouches that would see products only sold and marketed to adults, a health warning stating that the product contains nicotine “which is a highly addictive substance” and a cap of 20mg of nicotine per pouch (in the EU, disposable vapes, which can be used multiple times, can contain up to 40mg of nicotine while a tobacco cigarettes can only contain 1mg).
BAT’s head of EU affairs, Eric Sensi–Minautier, said if the Commission decides to regulate further, BAT “would welcome” the harmonization of rules around nicotine pouches to remove regulatory divergences between countries.
But, he said, the trend among EU countries is to “appropriately regulate nicotine pouches, not to ban them,” pointing to countries such as the Czech Republic, Denmark and Sweden.
“As history shows, where whole categories of product have been banned, such as with alcohol and cigarettes, prohibitionist policies don’t work but simply drive consumers towards illegal, unregulated and untaxed products supplied by criminal networks, who of course don’t check any ID,” said Sensi-Minautier.
While nicotine pouches are still small fry when it comes to tobacco company profits and have yet to be taken up by large numbers of Europeans, the swift bans by countries like Belgium and the Netherlands can be explained by the fact that it’s easier to put in place restrictions in the “very earliest stages of growth,” argued Morningstar’s Gorham.
While Gorham acknowledges that governments are concerned about the possible health impacts of nicotine pouches, he says there might also be another, less noble motive for considering a ban.
“The skeptic in me also says that the tax stream from tobacco is very attractive and all governments are struggling to balance the books, I think the thought process here is that if you ban a new category early, you retain the tax revenue in cigarettes,” he said.
Recent news out of New Zealand might prove his point: The country’s new government announced it was reversing its generation ban on cigarettes so that it could maintain that tax income.
Additional reporting by Carlo Martuscelli.
UPDATED: This article was updated to clarify that disposable vapes can be used multiple times.