Joshua Knelman is a Toronto-based writer and the author of Firebrand: A Tobacco Lawyer’s Journey.
A decades-old public-health battle has flared up again, with leading Canadian anti-tobacco advocates from the Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Lung Association and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada fiercely protesting the introduction of a new smoking cessation product.
The cheerfully branded Zonnic (sounds like a relaxing “tonic” mixed with some “zing!”) has quietly settled like mist onto convenience store shelves, to be sold as an alternative to vapes and cigarettes.
The product has sparked a firestorm of shock and cynicism aimed at British American Tobacco, the multinational corporation that owns Canadian subsidiary and Zonnic distributor Imperial Tobacco. But the ire has also been directed at Health Canada, which rubber-stamped Zonnic as a natural-health product, i.e., nicotine replacement therapy, with no age restrictions attached.
Zonnic releases nicotine by sucking on it – like a lollipop or a breath mint. You “pop it” and it will “tingle” in your mouth, its marketing materials state. While there are many other nicotine replacement products on the market (even some that are flavoured), what sets Zonnic apart is its marketing. Unlike most other smoking cessation therapies, Zonnic comes in a variety of enticing flavours with names like Berry Frost, Chill Mint and Tropic Breeze emblazoned on its colourful packaging. Sleek, saturated videos from Zonnic posted to social media flash images of fit, young adults as they work out, navigate shared-office environs, and then dine and dance. It promises to “add more smoke-free hours to your day,” as if gyms, offices, restaurants and clubs could, if not for Zonnic, still be blue with smoke – a bygone era that Canada has worked so diligently to quit.
Zonnic can also be sold, without penalty or fine, to any age group, including young people, at convenience stores and gas stations. The Zonnic website suggests it not be sold to anyone under 18 years of age, but that’s a request, not the law, as per Health Canada’s approval.
Health Canada and our provinces have spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars lowering our country’s percentage of smokers, from above 50 per cent in the 1960s to around 10 per cent today. The approach worked, with nicotine use among youth retreating year over year.
Then, in 2018, vapes and e-cigarettes began trending steeply, proliferating at convenience stores and marketed as an innovative, Silicon Valley-approved and safe quit-smoking solution – the thrill of inhaling without the carbon monoxide or tar, and with the allure of flavours like strawberry milk, vanilla custard, or old-fashioned “Virginia Tobacco.” Flavoured vapes caught the attention of adult smokers, but unfortunately, also that of young people. According to a 2022 Statistics Canada survey, 30 per cent of youth between the ages of 15 and 19, along with almost half of young adults, reported they have tried vaping. While cigarette use was drastically in decline, vaping became intensely popular and injected nicotine back into high school culture: Canada currently boasts some of the highest youth-vaping rates in the world.
The furious popularity of this new nicotine technology caught parents, health care practitioners, and policy makers off guard. Restrictions and regulations around the sale of this product had to be revamped, but by many measures, it was already too late. A new generation had been exposed to, and hooked on, nicotine. This was truly shocking.
Flash forward to 2023, and here arrives Zonnic, competing with vapes and cigarettes as an alternative nicotine delivery system. Except that unlike other nicotine cessation products, which are by and large only available at drug stores, the fledgling and tobacco-free Zonnic is available at the corner store. It’s as if Big Tobacco, in this case, is using the “If you can’t beat them, join them” approach.
But Zonnic isn’t purporting to wean anyone off nicotine. It is simply intended to be used as an alternative to smoking. So, theoretically, if a smoker made the switch to Zonnic, that switch could last for a lifetime. But just as likely a scenario is this: A high-school student buys a brightly coloured container on their lunch break, and uses some Berry Frost to add zing to their afternoon history or geography class.
Canada has maintained its status as a global leader in anti-smoking strategies, but the launch of Zonnic may ultimately force our policy makers to rethink our approach, thinking of the need for not just an anti-tobacco or anti-smoking strategy, but instead, an anti-nicotine strategy.
We should look to Quebec, where Zonnic can only be purchased at select pharmacies, according to its website. This is certainly the correct point of sale for the intensely addictive drug nicotine, which no generation has been completely able to kick since it was introduced as a mainstream consumer product more than a century ago.