‘All good to take to school?’: Australian influencers promote flavoured nicotine pouches to vape-addicted youths

Australian social media influencers are promoting highly controversial and likely harmful flavoured nicotine pouches in viral videos claiming they are an effective tool to quit vaping, as public health experts warn the increasingly popular products could become the next youth epidemic.

The teabag-like sachets are placed between the gum and lip and are similar to snus, which is popular in Scandinavia. But unlike snus, which contains tobacco, nicotine pouches contain nicotine extracted from tobacco or synthetic nicotine and are promoted as “tobacco free”.

The pouches – which the World Health Organization warns are a growing “public health concern” – are being heavily publicised on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, with at least one post by an Australian-based fitness influencer garnering more than 2m views.

According to Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) the products require a prescription to be legally supplied in Australia. One website that ships the pouches directly to consumers maintains they are legal in Australia.

The nicotine pouches are being sold on several websites in Australia with flavours similar to vapes, such as “bubblegum,” “lemon spritz” and “frozen cloudberry”. The products are manufactured by tobacco companies such as Philip Morris International’s Zyn brand and British American Tobacco’s Velo brand.

It comes ahead of a federal ban on non-prescription vapes, which the health minister, Mark Butler, promised would halt the tobacco industry’s attempt to create a “new generation of nicotine addicts”.

A ‘healthier alternative’?

Videos from several young Australians proposing the pouches as an alternative to vaping have routinely garnered tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments, with many asking where the products can be bought and one asking, “Are they all good to take to school?”

Stefan Kohut, 19, is an Australian fitness influencer with 13,700 followers on TikTok. He promotes the platform Snussaholic with a link to the website that sells Zyn, Velo and other nicotine pouches in his bio – and he has published 13 videos promoting the product.

In a video posted on 30 November with 340,000 plays Kohut explains how nicotine pouches are used.

Kohut says it is “just my personal take not advice”, but notes nicotine pouches were the reason he hadn’t vaped in four weeks.

In another video posted 23 January with more than 30,900 plays, Kohut says nicotine pouches offer a “healthier alternative” to vaping or smoking, while in another posted on 8 January with 12,600 plays, he says Snussaholics gave him an “affiliate code” to offer his followers a 15% discount: “for everyone trying to get off vapes snussaholic is where it’s at”.

An affiliate code is customised so that the merchant can track where a customer came from and the referrer – often influencers – may get a commission.

Kohut warns: “if you’re under 18 these aren’t for you. Or if you don’t vape, or you don’t smoke, or you’re not trying to get off anything like that these aren’t for you.”

Nicotine pouches are teabag-like sachets, similar to oral tobacco products such as snus popular in Scandinavia, that placed between the gum and lip. Photograph: Becky Freeman

Sydney-based fitness influencer Zahki Kapusta, 24, has more than 15,000 followers on TikTok.

His 30 December video, “Become your best self and quit vaping in 2024”, has reached more than 2m plays. In the video, Kapusta advocates nicotine pouches as an effective tool to quit vaping, saying of the three times he’s quit, using the pouches “took the least amount of effort and was the easiest mentally”. “The first time … I quit cold turkey which I still reckon is the best way to do it but by far this is going to suck the most.”

He says “you might be more likely to get addicted [to pouches rather than nicotine gum], but “the barrier to entry is pretty limited … you have to get it in the post.”

Kapusta has posted seven videos since 21 November featuring the use of nicotine pouches, some of which advocate them as a way to quit vaping, and in some cases using hashtags referencing the nicotine pouch “#zyn”, or slogans such as “quitvaping” and “#nicotine”.

Until recently his TikTok bio promoted a website called “snusitout.com”, whose homepage has stated that while “nicotine pouches have already gained popularity in the United States and Europe, they’re just starting to gain recognition in Australia … We’re committed to providing Australian nicotine users with healthier choices for their nicotine satisfaction.”

Kapusta told Guardian Australia he is “not affiliated with Zyn, Phillip Morris or any other company that produces/sells these products … The intention of my video was to share the method I used to quit vaping with the use of nicotine supplements. Not to promote them,” he said.

“I am in no way encouraging individuals that do not already use nicotine to start.”

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Following Guardian Australia’s inquiries, the link to snusitout was removed from Kapusta’s Linktree page .

Snusitout’s website has been updated following Guardian Australia’s enquiries, removing the reference to “nicotine satisfaction” and now states “we’re committed to providing Australian smokers an aid in the cessation of smoking.”

‘Exceptionally high’ levels of nicotine

The World Health Organization warns some nicotine pouches contain “exceptionally high” levels of nicotine, an addictive chemical shown to effect the nervous and cardiac systems, leading to a faster heart rate and increased blood pressure. A British Medical Journal study found half the nicotine pouches it tested contained tobacco-specific compounds that can damage DNA and in the long term lead to cancer.

The WHO says sales of nicotine pouches are growing rapidly and that they are part of the industry’s efforts to expand its portfolio of novel and emerging nicotine and tobacco products.

The University of Sydney tobacco control expert Prof Becky Freeman said the websites marketing of nicotine pouches as a way to quit vapes and cigarettes was “very insincere”, while tobacco companies marketed nicotine pouches as a “stopgap measure” in places where vaping was not allowed.

She said the extra step of flavouring the oral nicotine, with many of the same sweet candy flavours as vapes, is the reason they have “taken off” among young people in the United States The Generation Vape study she leads has heard increasing anecdotes of nicotine pouch use in Australia.

“We waited too long to see what would happen with vaping, and all of a sudden, we had a youth epidemic on our hands,” she said.

Prof Emily Banks, an epidemiologist with the Australian National University and leading tobacco control expert, said there were registered safe and effective products for helping people quit such as nicotine gum, patches and inhalers.

“Addiction itself is a health issue … you only feel normal when you’ve got the product,” Banks said.

The TGA said it was aware of some nicotine pouches being advertised and supplied in Australia, adding it was monitoring the situation and taking enforcement action where it breaches the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989.

The TGA says nicotine pouches can only be supplied with a prescription, or if they meet certain conditions such as being expressly indicated for quitting smoking and included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.

“No nicotine pouches have been approved by the TGA for use in Australia. The quality, safety or effectiveness of these goods as an aid in the withdrawal from tobacco smoking is not yet known, and their widespread marketing and use in the community is potentially harmful,” it said.

A BAT (British American Tobacco) Australia spokesperson said “the websites named by the Guardian Australia are in no way associated with BAT Australia, BAT as a global entity or any of our trading partners”.

“These websites …should be shut down by the TGA immediately,” the spokesperson said.

Snusitout’s website argues that nicotine pouches “are legal in Australia”. It acknowledges that they fall under the TGA’s poison standard unless they are prescribed by a doctor, are within tobacco prepared and packed for smoking, or “prepared for oromucosal” or transdermal administration to “aid in smoking cessation”.

Snussaholic’s website state its products are not a smoking cessation tool and advises consumers to “consult a healthcare professional before using nicotine pouches”.

Guardian Australia sought comment from Kohut, Philip Morris International, and the websites Snussaholics and snusitout.com.

The Guardian