‘We were duped’: Health minister vows to close ‘loophole’ on flavoured nicotine pouches

Canada’s health minister says he’ll act quickly to shut down a “loophole” after Health Canada approved the sale of flavoured nicotine pouches with no restrictions on how the product is advertised or sold.

“There are very serious questions about what the tobacco industry is doing here and what their intention is. And it would seem that their intention is to addict new young people to nicotine, which is disgusting,” Health Minister Mark Holland said Tuesday in response to questions from CBC News.

“We want to shut down this loophole.”

Six national health groups called on Ottawa earlier this month to act swiftly to regulate the advertising and sale of flavoured nicotine pouches after the product appeared in gas stations and convenience stores across the country in October.

Ottawa approved the pouches — produced by cigarette manufacturer Imperial Tobacco under the brand name Zonnic — as a product to help smokers quit.

Zonnic does not contain tobacco and because the pouches contain less than 4 mg of nicotine each and are not inhaled, they don’t fall under any existing federal or provincial tobacco or vaping legislation.

“The way that this was presented is that it was for the purposes of cessation. In their marketing and their approach, it exists in a completely different way. We were duped,” Holland said.

“Obviously, if we knew their intention, we would have never allowed that.”

Nicotine pouches are also sold in the United States and Europe. Some countries have moved to ban them outright, citing the risk to children.

WATCH: Health minister says Ottawa will act to regulate nicotine pouches:

Health minister says he’ll act swiftly to regulate flavoured nicotine pouches

Featured VideoMark Holland promises to review approval processes after Zonnic hit shelves, alarming health groups.

When asked how Health Canada failed to anticipate that risk, Holland said he takes “responsibility for that” and vowed to take a “rigorous look” at the processes for approving nicotine products.

“The fact that we could have allowed this to get across the line and not seen this eventuality, and not seen what they were going to do, I’m deeply apologetic for. I do not want this out in the world,” he said.

Zonnic falls under Canada’s Natural Health Products Regulations, which also cover smoking cessation products like nicotine gum and patches. 

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)

Under those regulations, there is no legal restriction on where and to whom those products can be sold. Only Quebec requires that they be sold at pharmacies.

Health Canada said Imperial is required to self-report annually and “identify any youth appeal/misuse of the product.”

“Marketing directed at youth would be deemed deceptive advertising and could trigger post-market compliance actions,” Health Canada wrote in a statement.

But decisions about where the products can be sold and age limits on purchase rest with the provinces and territories, Health Canada said.

Provinces given no time to regulate: Cancer Society

National health groups say they’re angry with Health Canada for approving nicotine pouches without giving provinces time to ensure they could regulate them. They want the health minister to either reclassify the pouches as prescription-only or temporarily halt their sales so that provincial legislation can catch up.

“Provinces were given no advance notice that this was going to be legalized. But for cannabis, provinces had three years to get ready to prepare provincial legislation [and] regulations,” said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, one of the groups welcoming the health minister’s promise to close the loophole.

Cunningham said provinces are still trying to regulate vaping after that product was allowed on the market for years with little oversight. Canada now has some of the highest teen vaping rates in the world.

“With vaping products, governments have had to play catch-up,” he said. “We’ve learned very difficult lessons.”

A screen grab of Zonnic Canada's instagram feed showing bright pictures of the product's packaging.
Zonnic’s Instagram feed features bright and colourful photos and video, which health groups warn could entice young people. (Zonnic Canada/Instagram)

CBC News reached out to all 13 provinces and territories to ask if they plan to regulate the use of nicotine pouches. Several said they were monitoring the situation, but none committed to bringing in new regulations.

In a media statement, Nova Scotia said it wants Health Canada to take action so there is consistency across the country.

B.C. said it won’t include Zonnic in any of its cessation programs because the provincial government fears it’s being marketed to young people.

“We’re concerned about it. We’ve raised it with the federal government and we would like and we would expect them to take action. If they don’t, we’ll consider all our options,” said Adrian Dix, B.C.’s health minister.

Governments must act fast because young people can become nicotine-dependent sooner than adults, said Dr. Nicholas Chadi, a Montreal pediatrician who specializes in the prevention and treatment of nicotine and substance use disorders in youth.

“Young people can become addicted to nicotine within weeks,” Chadi said.

Each pouch contains the equivalent of three to four cigarettes, an amount that Chadi said is significant, especially if used by a young person.

Health Canada says nicotine can kill brain cells and stop new ones from growing. In young people it can also lead to cognitive issues and increase the risk of mood disorders. It says nicotine replacement therapy is less harmful than smoking, but only if someone already smokes or is trying to quit.

But there’s a shortage of data on how nicotine pouches affect their users, Chadi said.

“We are seeing rapid increases in rates of use among young people in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” he said.

‘We don’t target kids’: Imperial Tobacco

Imperial Tobacco Canada, the maker of Zonnic, maintains its product is not intended for or marketed to anyone under the age of 18. It says it tells retailers to verify a buyer’s age before selling it.

“There’s no loophole. We’ve been through a process,” said Eric Gagnon, Imperial Canada’s vice president of legal and external affairs.

“We have answered many questions around the product. We’ve demonstrated the efficacy and the safety of Zonnic to help people quit smoking and that’s exactly why we’ve put this product on the market.

“We don’t target kids.”

But Spencer Hudson, a 17-year-old student in Ottawa, said he’s already seen the pouches circulating at his high school.

“People are just saying that they just give you a really good head rush,” he said.

Hudson said most of the kids in his school vape. He said the Zonnic ads do seem to be targeting young people.

“It looks like candy,” he said.

“Kids love nicotine. I don’t know why, but kids just love nicotine. They think they’re cool.”

Spencer Hudson, a student in Ottawa stands looking forward outside in a park.
Spencer Hudson, a 17 year old Ottawa student, says flavoured nicotine pouches are already circulating at his high school, where vaping is already very popular. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)

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