Welcome to the Zyn Panic

For something that isn’t candy, Zyn nicotine pouches sure look a lot like it. The packaging, a small metal can, looks more than a little like a tin of mints. The pouches come in a wide variety of flavors: citrus, cinnamon, “chill,” “smooth.” And they’re consumed orally, more like jawbreakers or Warheads than cigarettes.

America has found itself in the beginnings of a Zyn panic. As cigarette and vape use have trailed off in recent years, Zyn and other nicotine pouches are gaining traction. The absolute pouch-usage numbers are still not that high, but sales have more than quadrupled from late 2019 to early 2022. Although only adults 21 and older can legally purchase them—a fact that the product’s website directly points out—they are reportedly catching on with teens. “I’m delivering a warning to parents,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in January, calling for a crackdown, “because these nicotine pouches seem to lock their sights on young kids.” Earlier this month, a group of plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI), which also makes Zyn, of purposefully targeting kids. (“We believe the complaints are without merit and will be vigorously defended,” a PMI spokesperson told me over email, adding that Zyn offers “adult-orientated flavors.”)

On their surface, nicotine pouches seem to be a fad like any other, but they are the end result of a century of nicotine marketing and development that began with cigarettes and has now moved beyond. “It’s basically part of the long history of the candification of nicotine,” Robert Proctor, a Stanford historian who has written multiple books on tobacco, told me. Over the years, the tobacco industry has gradually introduced more and more products flavored and packaged like sweet treats. Now, with Zyn, the industry has finally devised a near-perfect one.

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Once, nicotine wanted to be the opposite of candy. In the 1920s, weight loss—or “reducing,” as it was then known—became a major craze, and the tobacco industry moved to market its products as a healthier alternative to candy. “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!” read one ad. Candymakers were understandably aggrieved about this slight, but the industries made nice in 1930, when Lucky’s maker dropped “instead of a sweet!” from its slogan. Candy and cigarettes had commonalities. Both relied on sugar—candy because, well, obviously, and cigarettes to cut the bitter taste of tobacco. Both were placed near the checkout register, to encourage impulse purchases. Soon, the makers of both products established joint trade journals and labor unions, at least one of which exists to this day. (Yes, some of the workers who make Ghirardelli chocolate and Marlboro cigarettes are represented by the same union.)   

Around this time, tobacco companies warmed up to the potential of cigarettes made out of chocolate, bubblegum, or pure sugar. Candy cigarettes, they seem to have realized, were free advertising, a gateway for kids into the world of smoking. (“Just Like Daddy!” read the slogan on one brand’s boxes.) The more similar the candy replicas looked to the real deal, the better. By the 1950s, most of the top cigarette brands—Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, Philip Morris—had their candy equivalent made by other companies, with packaging that very closely matched the real thing.

This was roughly the equivalent of a modern apple-juice maker packaging its product in a Jack Daniel’s bottle. These tobacco companies claim never to have encouraged this, but as Proctor details in his 2011 book, Golden Holocaust, they did nothing to discourage it either. The goal, he writes, was to “create Philip Morris in the minds of our future smokers.” (That Philip Morris and the current Philip Morris International are not technically the same company, having since rebranded and then split apart.)

Over time, cigarettes themselves became more and more candylike—and the government has responded by cracking down. Menthol cigarettes went big in the 1950s and ’60s, and starting in the ’70s, companies introduced a wider range of even more candylike flavors: chocolate, strawberry, Twista Lime, Warm Winter Toffee. Flavored cigarettes were eventually banned in 2009—with the exception of menthol—because of their disproportionate popularity among kids. But flavored e-cigarettes such as Juul took their place just a few years later and quickly became the most popular tobacco product among American youth—until they, too, were mostly banned in 2020.

Now, with products such as Zyn, the candification of nicotine is pretty much complete. Pouches don’t just taste like candy; they’re also packaged like candy and consumed like candy (don’t swallow them, though). Proctor told me he’s talked with people for hours before realizing they had a nicotine pouch in their mouth. “It’s the ultimate merger of two of the leading hazards of modernity,” he said. Other companies such as Velo and Lucy are selling nicotine pouches too. Lucy even calls one of its special pouch lines “Breakers” (which sounds suspiciously close to Icebreakers, though a spokesperson for the company told me in an email, “They are in no way intended to resemble ice breakers the mints or any other type of candy.”). And it’s not just pouches: Nicotine chewing gum and lozenges have become available in wide varieties of flavors and are packaged in candy-colored pastels. Nicotine gummies have been on the rise as well.

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Unlike with cigarette-shaped candies or candy-flavored cigarettes, both of which were uncomplicatedly bad, there actually is a legitimate, good-faith argument to be had about the merits of Zyn and similar flavored products. On the one hand, they do not contain tobacco and are not smoked, which is largely what makes cigarettes so deadly. The tobacco industry has positioned these products as a way for adults to wean themselves off of cigarettes, and they sure seem to be much safer than cigarettes, which kill more than 480,000 Americans each year—more than the combined deaths from COVID and car-crash fatalities in 2021. So the more people popping flavored pouches or gummies rather than smoking cigarettes, the better. On the other hand, they are addictive, and flavored products have been shown to play a major role in hooking kids. The PMI spokesperson told me, “If you’re worried about your health, the best thing is to never start using nicotine or”—if you already do—“stop using it.”

Whether the increase in the number of kids using nicotine is worth the decrease in the number of adults using cigarettes is hotly debated. There’s a dark irony to the fact we’re having this debate at all. A hundred years ago, tobacco companies invoked the idea, if not the specific language, of harm reduction when they marketed their cigarettes as a healthy alternative to candy. Now they’re making their own nicotine products more candylike and marketing them as a healthy alternative to cigarettes. The harm reducer has become the harm to be reduced.

After all this, flavored nicotine pouches might end up banned, just like flavored cigarettes and vapes before them. But in the cat-and-mouse game that the tobacco industry has been playing with regulators, Zyn may have a better chance of persisting than anything before it.