What Chuck Schumer Doesn’t Understand About ZynReading Time: 6 minutes
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At a press conference last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer called on federal agencies to investigate and crack down on Zyn, an oral nicotine product that most Americans have never used and likely have never heard of. One might not have expected this seemingly niche topic to get much attention, but the issue lit up the very-online right.
‘This calls for a Zynsurrection!’ Republican Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on X. Fellow Georgia Rep. Mike Collins posted a meme riffing on the ‘come and take it’ flag, a symbol of the Texas Revolution, replacing the iconic cannon with just the word ‘ZYN.’ Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, an enthusiastic user of the nicotine pouches, gushed on a podcast last year that using Zyn ‘is like the hand of God reaching down and massaging your central nervous system.’ In a video posted in December, he ecstatically welcomed a giant Zyn container delivered to his yard by helicopter.
Superficially, this might seem like just another dumb culture war among the terminally online, for whom anything from Keurig coffee makers to Taylor Swift can become a symbol of political polarization. But the stakes of tobacco policy matter for the rest of us too, particularly for the health of people who smoke and for the 2024 elections. It deserves to be taken seriously. And as much as liberals and progressives may be loath to admit it, right-wing posters defending the freedom of adults’ right to use Zyn have the better of the argument.
Let’s back up a little bit. Zyn is a brand of oral nicotine pouches that was introduced to the United States in 2014 by the company Swedish Match, which was purchased by Philip Morris International in 2022. The pouches contain nicotine derived from tobacco plants but are otherwise tobacco-free. They come in a variety of flavors, including tobacco as well as options like mint and cinnamon. Though it has recently gained popularity, Zyn represents a small fraction of the market for nicotine products: 2021 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the number of American adults using all types of oral tobacco products (not just Zyn) to be around 5 million. By comparison, more than 10 million American adults vape and nearly 30 million smoke cigarettes.
Nicotine pouches are a relatively novel product but are a close analogue to snus, a form of oral tobacco with a much longer history in Scandinavia. The experience of Sweden, which has taken a liberal approach to snus, is extremely encouraging when it comes to public health. Snus has largely displaced far deadlier cigarettes, especially among men, and Sweden has the lowest prevalence of smoking in all of Europe. The country boasts correspondingly positive health outcomes, with Europe’s lowest rates of lung cancer deaths and lower rates of death among men from all causes attributable to smoking than peer countries in Western Europe and North America.
Sweden achieved these results despite the fact that many Swedes continue to use nicotine. They just switched to consuming it in ways that are far safer than lighting tobacco leaves on fire and deeply inhaling the smoke into their lungs. By eliminating combustion and minimizing levels of carcinogenic nitrosamines, Swedish snus vastly reduces the harms associated with cigarettes and more rustic forms of oral tobacco.
Nicotine pouches, like snus and e-cigarettes, hold potential to replace cigarettes and avert death and disease caused by smoking. And unlike vaping, which presents difficult tradeoffs between harm reduction for adults transitioning away from cigarettes and popularity among teenagers who never smoked, nicotine pouches do not yet show much uptake among youth. The 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that only 1.5 percent of students reported using nicotine pouches. It’s certainly possible that that number will rise, but hypothetical fears of teenagers getting hooked on Zyn shouldn’t completely eclipse the product’s benefits for adult consumers.
That’s why Sen. Schumer’s call for a crackdown on Zyn is misguided. The CDC estimates that cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans annually. For some perspective, that’s 130,000 more deaths in the United States than the CDC attributed to COVID in all of 2020, and still slightly more deaths than those attributed to COVID in 2021 (the deadliest year of the pandemic), happening every single year. Yet instead of treating smoking as an urgent health crisis, deaths of people who smoke are dismissed as a normal part of the health landscape. Moral panic over youth trying any form of nicotine at all overshadows the benefits of replacing cigarettes with safer sources of nicotine.
Harm reduction is a divisive topic in the field of tobacco control. Still, in a paper co-authored by 15 past presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, researchers came together to point out that the interests of existing smokers are routinely ignored:
These are constituencies and vulnerable groups whose interests Democrats should be particularly attuned to. Unfortunately, when it comes to nicotine and tobacco, they have few ideas to offer aside from crackdowns and prohibitions, particularly on flavored products that are favored by adults but that also appeal to youth. Sen. Schumer’s call for restricting Zyn takes particular note of non-tobacco flavors, the Biden administration has long promised a federal ban on menthol cigarettes, and the Food and Drug Administration has thus far denied authorization to any flavored e-cigarettes, amounting to a de facto policy against them.
Experience in jurisdictions that have implemented flavor bans suggests very real risks that such policies can backfire. A new working paper from health researchers at Yale, Georgetown, and the University of Missouri analyzes prohibitions of flavored e-cigarettes in more than 300 jurisdictions. As expected, the laws reduced sales of e-cigarettes. Unfortunately, they also increased sales of conventional cigarettes: The authors found that for every reduction of one vape pod sold, there was a corresponding increase of 12 cigarettes. They conclude that this substitution effect can erase the public health benefits of flavor restrictions on e-cigs, even in the case of comprehensive flavor bans that apply equally to menthol cigarettes.
Massachusetts demonstrates, as the first state to implement a comprehensive ban on all flavored tobacco products, the way such restrictions incentivize illicit markets. The most recent annual report of the state’s Multi-Agency Illegal Tobacco Task Force identifies ‘cross-border smuggling of untaxed flavored ENDS products [electronic nicotine delivery systems], cigars, and menthol cigarettes as the primary challenge for tobacco enforcement in the Commonwealth.’ This led to more than 300 seizures of illicit products in 2022, as well as multiple arrests and ongoing prosecutions.
Bans may also have political consequences. A 2018 poll funded by the Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking group, found that a narrow majority (56 percent) of American adults favored a menthol ban, with higher support among African American and Hispanic people. There was one group, however, among whom support was drastically lower: people who smoke menthol cigarettes. Fewer than a third of them support the policy, and a federal ban on products they use would be far more salient to them than to voters who support it in the abstract.
The Biden administration has delayed announcing a federal menthol ban reportedly due to worries about its political consequences. This is a valid concern, especially given the tight margins in swing states. In 2020, fewer than 12,000 votes stood between Biden and Trump in Arizona and Georgia. More than 10 million Americans smoke menthols.
Republicans are already wielding the threat of bans on menthol cigarettes and Zyn as a cudgel against Democrats. ‘The nanny state is alive and well with today’s Democrat Party,’ the Senate Republicans account posted on X last week. Such policies give Republicans an opening to portray Democrats as interfering in the freedom and bodily autonomy of consenting adults. Sure, that’s a bit rich given Republican stances on abortion, gender, and drugs other than nicotine, but that doesn’t mean the attack won’t land.
Democratic Sen. John Fetterman had the right idea when asked about a Zyn crackdown, responding, ‘I’m going to err on the side of more freedom and personal choices … and I made the same argument when I wanted to legalize marijuana.’ Other Democrats should follow his example. As with cannabis or, say, alcohol—a known carcinogen that contributes to thousands of underage deaths through intoxication and is also marketed with appealing flavors—it’s not realistic to expect complete abstinence from nicotine and tobacco. Smart policy can, however, ameliorate their worst effects by encouraging both cessation and a transition to safer products.
The issue of tobacco harm reduction is too important to be surrendered to the political right. Progressives and liberals can do good by taking a more pragmatic view of nicotine. Instead of demonizing Zyn, they should be shouting from the rooftops that people who smoke and are unable to quit can dramatically reduce their chance of dying by switching to lower-risk alternatives to cigarettes. The nearly 30 million Americans who smoke and the nearly half a million who die prematurely every year deserve better policy ideas and more sympathy than they currently get from the left, and they certainly deserve better advocates than Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
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