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Promotion material for Zonnic nicotine pouches from a gas station in Toronto. The pouch contains up to four milligrams of nicotine and is designed to be placed under a user’s lip.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Anti-smoking advocates are calling on the federal government to restrict the sale of a flavoured nicotine product recently approved by Health Canada that they warn is being marketed and sold directly to children and teens.

Imperial Tobacco Canada last month announced the launch of Zonnic, a pouch that contains up to four milligrams of nicotine and is designed to be placed under a user’s lip.

While Zonnic is marketed as a “nicotine replacement therapy” for adults, it is available for sale at convenience stores and gas stations with no legal restrictions on who can buy it. The company’s social-media posts feature images of young people and highlight the product’s flavours such as berry frost and tropic breeze.

Sales of nicotine pouches have taken off in many countries around the world, including the U.S., fuelling growing alarm over the use among young people and prompting the Netherlands to ban them outright earlier this year.

Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the Canadian Cancer Society, said the company’s advertising strategy and roster of flavours are clearly targeting youth and need to be addressed.

“It really is incomprehensible that this could have happened, but it has,” he said.

“And now, it has to be fixed.”

The Canadian Cancer Society is among several groups, including the Canadian Lung Association, Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada and the Heart and Stroke Foundation, calling on the federal government to make nicotine pouches prescription only or to suspend their sale until Ottawa can make changes to prevent their sale to minors.

The groups are also seeking a moratorium on approval for any other nicotine pouches, unless they are made available only by prescription.

Zonnic was developed by Nicoventures Trading Limited, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), which also owns Imperial Tobacco.

A spokesperson for Imperial Tobacco Canada was not available for an interview.

A history of anti-smoking measures in Canada

In a statement, Eric Gagnon, vice-president of legal and external affairs, said Zonnic is designed to help people quit smoking or reduce their dependence on cigarettes. The product contains flavours that adult consumers say they like and any advertisements feature adult actors, he wrote. While Zonnic, like other natural-health products, has no minimum age for sale, the company has asked retailers to only make it available to adults.

Mr. Gagnon added that if the “usual anti-tobacco lobby groups” want Canada to reach its goal of reducing smoking rates to less than 5 per cent by 2035, they need to “embrace these less risky alternatives.”

While the Zonnic website and advertising materials tout the pouches as a nicotine replacement product, health advocates say it’s nothing more than the tobacco industry’s attempt to reach a generation of young people by creating new, addictive products that circumvent the onerous restrictions placed on the marketing and sale of tobacco.

In a statement, Health Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau wrote that natural health products are subject to rigorous safety and efficacy standards and that nicotine replacement products are labelled for use in people 18 and older.

“This authorization gives Canadians who wish to stop smoking access to one more tool to quit smoking, with the assurance that it meets the same high standards for safety and efficacy as other products that have been authorized as nicotine replacement therapies,” Ms. Jarbeau wrote.

Health Canada approved Zonnic as a natural health product, which is how other nicotine replacement products, such as gums or patches, have been approved. But those products, typically developed by drug companies, are primarily sold at pharmacies and don’t have the lifestyle advertising seen with Zonnic.

Zonnic’s Instagram features images and video of young people out to dinner, working out or watching sports while describing the product as “discreet and convenient” or able to be used “anytime, anywhere.”

“If you just look at their ads and their video, they’re emphasizing the lifestyle,” Mr. Cunningham said. “You might have, in very small print, ‘nicotine replacement therapy,’ but they’re emphasizing lifestyle in a classic way that you’ve seen in cigarette advertising over the years.”

Zonnic comes in a range of flavours, including chill mint, berry frost and tropic breeze. According to Health Canada, the company also has authorization to sell additional flavours, including cranberry fizz and polar mint.

Flavours were a driving force in the explosive growth in youth vaping, which has prompted several provinces to ban the use of them in e-cigarettes.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said the government is repeating the mistakes it made with vaping, by failing to pro-actively recognize and regulate products that pose a danger to young people.

“Vaping has made an enormous contribution to children’s addiction,” Ms. Callard said. “They should have known.”

In a statement, Jeff Brownlee, the vice-president of communications and stakeholder relations with the Convenience Industry Council of Canada, said that while they are not mandated to do so, many stores are choosing to keep Zonnic behind the counter and require proof of age before purchase.

BAT has identified nicotine pouches, a product category it refers to as “modern oral,” as an important area of growth. At a conference in September, Kingsley Wheaton, BAT’s chief strategy and growth officer, said the company is “very excited about modern oral going forward.”

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