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'Stay the hell away from our kids': Feds propose new restrictions on nicotine pouches

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The federal Liberals are looking to introduce new restrictions on nicotine pouches, Health Minister Mark Holland announced Wednesday, saying it is part of an effort to keep addictive products out of the hands of young Canadians.

"We're seeing a whole new cohort of young people being addicted to these products," Holland said. "I would say to the tobacco companies … stay the hell away from our kids."

First approved for Canadian markets last year, nicotine pouches are a tobacco-less product designed to help smokers quit. Placed between the gum and cheek in a user's mouth, the pouches release the addictive chemical also found in cigarettes, vape products and chewing tobacco, offering an alternative way to satisfy cravings.

As of this month, only one brand of nicotine pouch, Imperial Tobacco Canada's Zonnic, is approved for sale in Canada. A Health Canada advisory last updated Wednesday notes that, at four milligrams per dose, nicotine pouches are typically recommended for adults smoking 25 or more cigarettes per day.

"Nicotine pouches are authorized only to help adults quit smoking," the advisory reads. "They should not be used recreationally, by nonsmokers, by people under the age of 18, or by others at risk of nicotine's toxic effects"

Dark corners, iron walls

Holland clarified in his remarks Wednesday that he doesn't oppose innovation in the tobacco industry and welcomes the introduction of products to help wean smokers off of nicotine. It's what he sees as the marketing of those products to non-users of nicotine, including young people, he said, which has pressed him to act.

"We want to see products that are going to get people off of nicotine, and off of tobacco," he said.

"When it comes to innovating in the space of cessation, I celebrate that and want to see more of it. But that isn't what happened. The tobacco industry, yet again, used a loophole, to try to create innovation in the space of cessation to get people off of these products, to create a brand new line of products that addicts, particularly kids, to products that are deadly for their health."

Described as coming "imminently," the proposed restrictions include new federal regulations on how the products are marketed and sold, complementing steps already taken provincially in British Columbia and Quebec, where pouches must be sold in pharmacies.

Another planned restriction is to limit the sale of flavoured pouches.

"We shouldn't be seeing flavours that are targeting kids," Holland said. "Flavours like winter-berry splash or … tropical fruit, whatever, that they're putting out there; we all see through it."

The minister's remarks echoed the concerns around the rise in vaping among youth seen across Canada in recent years. Invoking his prior work during that time at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the minister said he is looking to prevent a pattern from repeating.

"Whatever dark corner the tobacco industry crawls and creeps into to go after our children … they will meet me like an iron wall," Holland said, his voice rising. "I'm sick of it … it's done."

'They're not using Zonnic': Imperial

In a press conference the same day, Eric Gagnon of Imperial Tobacco Canada said that Holland's allegation of leveraging a loophole "couldn't be further from the truth."

Gagnon noted that Zonnic underwent a yearslong approval process with regulators, and that Imperial maintains its own safeguards to protect kids beyond its legal obligations, including enforcing age verification at the point of sale.

"If kids are using nicotine pouches in Canada, they're not using Zonnic," Gagnon, Imperial's vice-president of corporate and regulatory affairs, told reporters Wednesday. "If a store sells Zonnic products and it's not age-verified, and we're made aware of it, we remove the product, immediately."

Gagnon said the company's products are solely for adults, and that their marketing is developed in consultation with the federal government.

Regarding flavour options, he said while Imperial would comply with any forthcoming restrictions, it is their position that limiting pouches to flavours like menthol or simulated tobacco is not the right direction to go in.

"Kids can still go in stores now and buy nicotine gums or nicotine lozenges," Gagnon said. "That's the real loophole in what's happening in the [nicotine-replacement therapy] space today."

Gagnon said regulators have targeted Imperial even though it has launched efforts to prevent the improper use of its products.

"We're aligned with most of what the minister said today," he said. "The measures that he wants to take – we're fully aligned with him. The only thing we're asking is that he needs to stop singling out Imperial Tobacco Canada. We were approved by his department." 

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