Last month, the BBC reported that health campaigners had called on the government to close a “loophole” in how nicotine pouches are regulated to prevent under 18s from being able to buy them legally. The report referenced Action on Smoking and Health spokesperson Hazel Cheeseman asking the government “to ban free samples and sales to under-18s, introduce limits on strength and to restrict marketing of the pouches.”

Although the lack of an age limit for pouch sales is not technically a loophole, it is merely that one has not been set as pouches have been regulated under General Product Safety Regulations and do not have their own regulatory framework, the NNA welcomes some of the proposals publicised by the BBC.

We wrote to Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, in February and August, 2020, and again to Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill, in January 2021 on the subject of nicotine pouches regulation. Our letters emphasised the significant potential benefits of nicotine pouches but observed that there was a need to install regulations in order to clamp down on “unscrupulous sellers in the UK who are acting recklessly.” We also noted that although “there is no evidence that currently these nicotine pouches are in the hands of under 18s”, it is necessary to put in place a minimum age of sale to pre-empt any difficulties that could arise in the absence of clarity that the products are intended for adults who wish to use a safer nicotine product.

We also suggested that it would benefit the government to commission a toxicological study by the Committee on Toxicity (COT) to fully assess the potential of these products, as has already been done for e-cigarettes and heated tobacco. This report has now been commissioned and a first draft statement was published in July this year. The same process is happening in Germany where the BfR (German Risk Institute) has conducted a toxicological assessment of pouches which produced positive conclusions.

We would also agree that there should be a stated limit on the strength of nicotine pouches, and also a standard measure for consumers to understand what strength of product they are purchasing, as currently different manufacturers convey the product strength in different ways. We understand that nicotine strength is not the only factor in how consumers can safely ingest nicotine from snus and non-tobacco nicotine pouches, and that quality of manufacture and ingredients also play a part, but until a more sophisticated regulatory assessment of all these factors can be put in place, a set limit can act as a sensible barrier to help remove unregulated and irresponsible online sellers from the market.

Our friends at ETHRA tell us that there is already a precedent for this in Europe. In October, the Slovak Parliament unanimously approved a bill regulating nicotine pouches. The bill introduced a definition for nicotine pouches, regulated their composition, assigned health warnings and determined a nicotine limit of 20 mg/pouch, amongst other measures.  

However, we do not agree that samples should be banned as they can be a very useful way of attracting, especially, smokers towards pouches, and would also disagree that marketing of the products should be prohibited. Action on Smoking and Health’s latest report on e-cigarette use in Great Britain found that only 3.9% of the public have ever tried a nicotine pouch. If we are to genuinely move towards Smokefree 2030, it is important that all reduced risk options of nicotine delivery are known to the public and it serves no good purpose to ban advertising for them while over 14% of the adult population still smokes.

In letters we have sent to the Department of Health detailing our overall strategy towards harm reduction in the UK, and also to the recent Khan Independent Tobacco Review, we have suggested establishing “a proportionate regulatory regime for nicotine pouches and other non-tobacco oral nicotine products based on consumer welfare and protection.”

It is good to see some of our long-held suggestions on nicotine pouches regulation being taken up by health groups, but it is important that the government does not go too far and over-regulate to the point that potential benefits of the products are lost.