Health Minister Mark Holland vows to crackdown on nicotine pouches

Imperial Tobacco addresses accusations of exploiting a loophole to get Health Canada approval for its oral nicotine pouch.
Health Minister Mark Holland Canadian Press
Health Minister Mark Holland - THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Health Minister Mark Holland promised a major crackdown on nicotine pouches, and issued a stern warning to tobacco companies he says are marketing the pouches to children.

Holland accused Imperial Tobacco of exploiting a loophole to get Health Canada approval for its oral nicotine pouch by branding it as an aid to quit smoking. The approval did not come with a minimum age limit. He charged that the product is now being used to hook a new generation on nicotine. 

"I would say 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," Holland said at a press conference Wednesday, March 20. 

Holland has written to provinces about his plans to restrict access to the product, called Zonnic, as well as the flavours and marketing that can be used. 

Zonnic is the only oral pouch approved as nicotine replacement therapy in Canada, and contains four milligrams of nicotine. It comes in flavours including berry frost and tropic breeze, and is designed to be placed under the upper lip so nicotine can be absorbed through the gums.

"To me, it is absolutely essential that we see these products move behind counter," Holland said.

READ:  Convenience industry blindsided as B.C. moves flavoured nicotine pouches behind pharmacy counters

Quebec and British Columbia have already moved to put flavoured nicotine pouches behind the counter at pharmacies, so that people will have to consult a pharmacist to access them. 

Holland pledged to keep the pouches out of the hands of kids. 

"Whatever dark corner the tobacco industry crawls and creeps into to go after our children, wherever they go, whatever loophole they think they can find, they will meet me like an iron wall," Holland vowed.

Imperial Tobacco said it has not exploited any loopholes to get Zonnic on the market, and that it simply applied to Health Canada and got approval. The company said it feels the minister is ignoring other legal nicotine products, as well as pouches on the market that aren't regulated.

"To single out Zonnic for practices that are widespread across the industry is not only unfair but also smacks of hypocrisy, suggesting an anti-tobacco company bias rather than a genuine concern for public health," said Eric Gagnon, vice-president of regulatory affairs at Imperial Tobacco Canada.

The company is open to talking about the restrictions Holland raised, he said, but he believes those changes should apply to all products used to quit smoking, including nicotine gum.

The company has already revised its marketing of the product and moved to put the product behind the counter in convenience stores and other places the product is sold, even though it's not required by regulation, Gagnon said.

However, he said he believes the product should be available anywhere cigarettes are sold. He said he also believes flavours make the pouches more attractive as a quitting tool for people who smoke. 

Health Canada issued a consumer safety alert about the pouches Wednesday to warn people to use them only as directed, and only as an alternative to smoking. "They should not be used recreationally, by non-smokers, by people under the age of 18, or by others at risk of nicotine's toxic effects," the alert said. 

Several groups that advocate for tobacco control applauded the minister's plan Wednesday. 

"First it was cigarettes. Then it was vaping. Now it’s nicotine pouches that risk addicting a whole new generation,” Doug Roth, chief executive of Heart & Stroke, said in a statement. Holland worked for Heart & Stroke between 2011 and 2015.

“We’re thrilled that Minister Holland is taking steps to stop this cycle and protect youth.”

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