What in god’s name is a Zyn, and why can’t American politicians stop fighting about it? The brand of nicotine pouches has become a font of controversy in recent weeks. Think tobacco dip, minus (crucially) the tobacco, in the form of flavored white sacks placed inside your lip, providing a buzz of nicotine. There’s coffee, citrus, cinnamon, various kinds of mint, and more. Popping one feels amaZyn, even Zynful. Pair it with a nice Zynfandel (or an energy drink) and take a trip to Zynbabwe. They’re a boost, a meme, a language, a mindset. Zyns aren’t just a product, they’re a subculture.
The trouble started when Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, questioned how many kids were getting hooked on them. Teens today are getting exposed to nicotine pouches thanks to social media, Schumer warned, pointing to “Zynfluencers who have made nicotine pouches a part of their online personalities.”
In response, Republican lawmakers have raged against the machine. “This calls for a Zynsurrection,” Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) wrote on X, claiming that Democrats who want to “legalize all drugs” are hypocritically calling for a Zyn ban. Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) proclaimed that “Big Brother Schumer doesn’t want us to chew or smoke.” Sen. John Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat, bucked the party divide by expressing his disapproval of nicotine pouch bans. “Tobacco is legal, and that kills over half a million Americans. Alcohol is legal and kills lots of people,” he told Newsweek. (To be clear, Schumer hasn’t called for prohibition; he wants more federal oversight from the FTC and FDA.)
The mood is very Don’t Tread on Me, with mostly conservatives taking up the banner of Zyn enjoyment as a matter of good ol’ American freedom.
Not since the heights of Juul have we seen such passion around nicotine in the culture wars — but now, things have become Zynteresting again.
1) What is Zyn?
Zyn, and other products like it, are small pouches about the size of a stick of Trident gum that contain nicotine and other inactive ingredients within a permeable wrapper. When nestled between the lip and the gum, nicotine slowly leaks out of the wrapper over the course of around an hour. Nicotine pouches first came on the European market around 2009 and began a gradual rollout in American markets five years later before becoming broadly available in the US in 2019.
You’re likely to see Zyn and similar products at convenience stores, gas stations, and — as one of us recently did — in the smoking cessation section of your local pharmacy. The pouches come in formulations containing between 1 and 12 milligrams of nicotine per pouch, and people typically absorb half of that amount. They cost around $4 to $5 for a container of 15 pouches.
In comparison, a single cigarette typically contains anywhere from 12 to 15 milligrams of nicotine, and people usually absorb 1 to 1.5 mg per cigarette. A packet of 20 runs anywhere from $6 to $12.
Although people often think of nicotine as synonymous with tobacco, it’s not — and that’s one of the most important things that differentiates nicotine pouches from all the other nicotine-containing products on the market. The format of an oral pouch recalls chewing tobacco, snuff, snus, dip, and other smokeless tobacco products that have bulged jawlines for decades. But the fact that the pouches do not contain tobacco has huge implications for their health effects.
In some ways, nicotine pouches are less like smokeless tobacco products and more like nicotine gum and lozenges, which are formulated to help people stop smoking. However, those products were specifically developed to help people quit smoking and had to prove they could do so in clinical trials before getting FDA approval, just like any other drug that makes a therapeutic claim. Nicotine pouches haven’t been tested in that way.
(In fact, although nicotine pouches are only supposed to contain nicotine, a recent European study found more than half of commercially available products actually do contain some of the other toxic, cancer-causing chemicals that occur in tobacco. Although a representative of Zyn told the New York Times their products do not contain those chemicals, that does raise concerns that users of nicotine pouches might be getting a less pure product than they think they’re getting.)
Although nicotine vapes also deliver nicotine without containing tobacco leaf, they’re different from pouches, too: People who vape get a large nicotine dose into their bloodstream quickly by inhaling it, while people who use pouches in their mouths absorb the dose more slowly. That distinction means pouch users are less likely to get addicted to the product than are people who smoke cigarettes or vape — much as people who chew coca leaves are less likely to get addicted than people who smoke crack cocaine, says Jonathan Foulds, a smoking cessation researcher at Pennsylvania State University’s Cancer Institute. (More about the relative addictiveness of these products below.)
2) How did this conversation start?
For years, lawmakers, pundits, and parents have sounded the alarm on the surge of e-cigarettes among Gen Z. But now that the US government has started to crack down on unauthorized vapes, restricting how they’re sold and where they can be used, the crosshairs have shifted to the latest danger on the block.
A New York Times op-ed by Emily Dreyfuss earlier this month raised concerns about an influx of teens being introduced to Zyn on social media. On Tiktok, enthusiasts — often seemingly young men — talk about the best Zyn flavors, or try to stuff as many pouches as possible in their mouths (to be clear, this is not recommended use). There are currently 29,700 Tiktoks under the hashtag #Zyn, including one in which right-wing political commentator Tucker Carlson calls them “a powerful work enhancer.” Joe Rogan has discussed them on his show; a group of popular YouTube pranksters have promoted them. Impressionable kids are watching their social media role models use Zyn; the brand has received the most attention of its cohort because it makes up almost 60 percent of all nicotine pouch sales in the nation.
Yet Dreyfuss’s argument isn’t so much about Zyn as it is about how algorithmic feeds can serve content to kids that their parents have no idea about. It’s part of a much larger debate about social media’s influence on young people, which can range from the amusingly weird to the extremely alarming.
That said, parents having no clue that their teen is feeling the social pressure to use nicotine is not new to the social media age. Moral panic about nicotine and tobacco products has long focused on how the industry targets kids and teens: Get them early and they’ll spend money on your products for life. But the approach to deterrence matters. In the ’90s, anti-drug programs like DARE used a heavy hand when it came to scaring children away from cigarettes, among other substances. Its tack of zero tolerance for any drug, giving little education on how to avoid harm, is now largely seen as a failure by health experts. Simply telling kids that they should never even glance at a cigarette doesn’t have a great track record.
Tobacco, though, has gone out of vogue. According to the American Lung Association, cigarette usage among high school students fell 74 percent between 2002 to 2019. “The FDA remains concerned about any tobacco product that may appeal to youth,” Brian King, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, told Vox over email. (While nicotine pouches don’t contain tobacco, the FDA does still regulate them.) An FDA spokesperson noted that the agency’s review of new products looks for both potential benefits and risks — like whether it offers adults a less harmful alternative to other tobacco products, or whether it introduces kids to them. The FDA and CDC reported that vaping had declined among high school students between 2023 and 2022, from 14 percent to 10 percent.
The FDA already regulates how nicotine products are promoted to kids. Last year, it banned sales of some flavored vapes — like ones that taste like fruit or desserts — arguing they appeal to kids. There’s also precedent for the FDA and FTC cracking down on cannabis products whose packaging is reminiscent of candy or snacks popular with kids. Most popular social media sites today have policies banning the promotion of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco (including nicotine products like vapes), and searching for Zyn on TikTok shows a banner warning users of substance abuse. Critics argue, though, that enforcement is lax.
3) Who is using it?
Nicotine pouch sales have skyrocketed in the US in the past few years, and awareness of them has grown too. But there’s little evidence that the usage is widespread. One study that conducted weekly surveys of more than 300 15- to 24-year-old Americans between December 2021 to May 2022 found that about 16 percent had ever tried nicotine pouches. The CDC’s 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey showed that 1.5 percent of middle and high school students said they had used a nicotine pouch in the last 30 days.
Research shows that far more men use smokeless tobacco products than women do, and they’re more popular in the Midwest and South than in the Northeast and West. If you only looked online, you’d think nicotine pouches were exclusively for young conservative dudes. Beyond the manosphere podcasters gushing about the product, there are also videos of fans asking former President Donald Trump’s son, Don Jr., and former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy to sign their Zyn cans. (No one, to our knowledge, has asked the same of Bernie Sanders.) One of the top posts of all time on the Reddit community r/nicotinepouch is about Sen. Schumer’s calls for a crackdown, titled, “i will make Jan. 6th look like a tea party.”
The response has been amusing to Chad Jones, 39, one of the subreddit’s moderators. Twenty years ago, he might have expected Republican support on grounds of “freedom of choice,” Jones tells Vox. But now, “there’s so much stuff that Republicans do that’s anti-freedom of choice. So it’s a really interesting moment.”
The sudden flurry of attention has been good as well as bad. “I imagine that the user base will grow, but with that new attention will probably inevitably come more regulation,” he tells Vox. Still, for Jones — who quit smoking cigarettes 15 years ago — in the end, it’s a net positive that more people know about alternatives to cigarettes. Sometimes he sees people who want to quit vaping, but don’t want to switch to a tobacco product.
4) How bad for you is it?
Nicotine pouches haven’t been around long enough for scientists to have great data about their long-term effects. And nicotine alone hasn’t been studied nearly as much as its main vehicle, tobacco. While scientists can hypothesize what health effects might occur in people who use pouches, some areas of uncertainty won’t be cleared up until long-term studies are done.
Most of the health risks of tobacco are related to the many chemicals it contains. Nitrosamines, metals, and toxic gases in tobacco and its smoke raise the risk of several cancers in people who use the leaf in its smokeless and smoked forms. When absorbed into the bloodstream, these compounds also cause narrowing and hardening of the blood vessels, which increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases. These compounds destroy the delicate tissue of the lung, especially when they’re inhaled as a component of tobacco smoke, often leading to emphysema and other forms of lung disease.
Nicotine is derived from tobacco leaf, and because it is addictive, it plays an important role in facilitating tobacco’s harms. It’s a big part of what keeps people coming back to the cigarettes (or the pipe, or the can, or whatever) over and over. Still, it’s not clear how much of a role nicotine itself has in wreaking any of tobacco’s havoc.
“The current data would suggest that it’s not carcinogenic,” says Joshua Jackson, a dentist and researcher at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.
Of particular concern when it comes to young people is the drug’s effect on brain development, and on the higher potential for addiction in younger brains. There’s evidence on brain differences in people who use nicotine compared with those who don’t. It’s hard to isolate the effects of nicotine from those of tobacco, but animal and laboratory studies suggest nicotine could be responsible for cognitive and behavioral changes — including addiction — in people who begin using it as youths.
To Foulds, it’s not clear whether behavioral differences are a cause or an effect of nicotine use. “It seems to me at least as plausible, or more plausible, that there are differences in the kind of people who take up a product that they’re not supposed to be using at a very young age,” he says. In other words, children who use nicotine may be able to do so because they’re not as well supervised as others, and that lack of supervision — not the nicotine — might lead to other negative outcomes.
Still, it’s best to avoid exposing young children (and babies in the womb) to chemicals when you’re not certain of their effects, just because so many chemicals do cause problems in developing and growing brains, says Foulds.
Some have proposed that the addictive properties of nicotine make any exposure a potential gateway to cigarette use, says Jackson. “It’s more of a hypothetical argument” that’s often made when talking about e-cigarette use in young people, but no data supports the theory, and it defies biological plausibility, he says. People simply aren’t inclined to transition from something sweet and flavored — like e-cigarettes and oral pouches — to something that tastes bad, like cigarettes.
It seems particularly unlikely that nicotine pouches would serve as a gateway to cigarettes, says Foulds, because orally absorbed nicotine doesn’t enter the circulatory system as quickly as inhaled nicotine. That makes pouches a less addiction-forming vehicle for the drug than, say, e-cigarettes.
5) Who’s lobbying who?
In Congress, Chuck Schumer and Marjorie Taylor Greene have made clear which side of the Zyn battle they stand on. Schumer’s position isn’t surprising — he has been a vocal proponent of more tobacco and nicotine regulation, having co-sponsored a 2009 law that banned cigarettes and smokeless tobacco being shipped by the US Postal Service. Greene, meanwhile, has a lot of thoughts on fentanyl trafficking across the southern US border, but hasn’t shown prior interest in nicotine regulation.
The FDA has been trying to wrap its arms around the flood of new nicotine products that have come onto the market in recent years, but there’s a lot of money being deployed to discourage more federal oversight like Schumer wants. In its earlier years, e-cigarettes were portrayed as a threat to Big Tobacco. Today, e-cigs and other nicotine products are often owned by big tobacco companies. Vuse, the most popular e-cig brand in the US right now, is owned by British American Tobacco. Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris Companies) bought a 35 percent stake in Juul in 2018, but exited it last year and made a multibillion investment in another e-cig brand, Njoy. Zyn is made by a tobacco company called Swedish Match, which Philip Morris International bought in 2022.
Smokeless tobacco makers spent almost $576 million advertising their products (which includes nicotine pouches) in 2021, according to the FTC. The anti-tobacco nonprofit Truth Initiative says that, from 2019 to 2021, nicotine pouch makers spent $25 million on advertising.
While cigarettes have declined in popularity, tobacco companies are still putting their muscle into lobbying. Philip Morris is ramping up lobbying efforts in the US again, focusing on the message that vaping and other nicotine products are harm-reducing alternatives to cigarettes. The industry not only uses registered lobbyists and trade groups, but also astroturfed “smokers’ rights groups” that mobilize supporters on social media. In 2020, California lawmakers filed a complaint to the FDA alleging the company misrepresented some of its products, including Zyn — which has not yet been authorized by the FDA — as having in fact been authorized. The company denied these claims.
6) What would increased FDA regulation of Zyn look like?
There’s some confusion about what Schumer was trying to achieve by calling for increased FDA scrutiny of Zyn and other nicotine pouches.
According to reporting from STAT, these products’ manufacturers submitted materials requesting Food and Drug Administration authorization in 2020 and are still awaiting the agency’s judgment. It’s unclear what’s to be gained from making a statement pressuring the FDA to do what it’s ostensibly already doing. One possibility is that Schumer wants to prevent nicotine pouches from being allowed to stay on the market pending the FDA’s decision about their authorization.
Another thing to be aware of in this fight is the current tussle between the FDA and e-cigarette manufacturers, like the makers of Juul, about whether they can legally market flavored products in the US that might appeal to kids. These products, and vaping more broadly, don’t seem to be particularly unsafe in the short term. But their long-term effects are unknown, and if they turn out to be bad, those effects will likely be worst for the people who started vaping young.
These products have been targeted for bans by US elected officials and regulators, Schumer among them. It’s possible his latest comments were intended to create pressure to support that push.
Either way, it’s worth remembering that a product’s regulation, and the discourse around it, are often totally separate from the science supporting its safety.
Correction, January 30, 12 pm ET: A previous version of this story said Altria has a 35 percent stake in Juul. Altria cut ties with Juul in 2023.
Correction, January 30, 5:55 pm ET: A previous version of this post implied the FDA has authorized Zyn for marketing as a modified risk tobacco product; it has not.