Corrected: This article has been corrected to remove Zyn flavors that aren’t sold in the United States.
School districts have spent the last several years cracking down on vaping, but there’s another addictive product gaining popularity among teens: oral nicotine pouches.
The pouches, most popular under the brand name “Zyn,” are smokeless, and users tuck them into their upper lips—making them harder to detect. They come in flavors like mint, menthol, coffee, and cinnamon
In recent years, e-cigarette products have faced federal flavor restrictions, and there’s evidence that at least high school students are vaping less. But some experts fear that as children move away from vapes, they may move toward nicotine pouches because they do not face the same flavor restrictions.
Another potential draw for young people: the pouches don’t generate smoke or otherwise draw attention in the same way as cigarettes and vapes, so it’s tougher to catch students using them. The vape detectors that many schools have installed in high-traffic areas like bathrooms, often with money from legal settlements with the e-cigarette manufacturer Juul Labs, can’t pick up on students using the pouches.
As nicotine pouches gain popularity, it’s important that districts draw on lessons learned from the rise of previous products—like cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Schools need to be proactive with prevention and intervention efforts, according to school district leaders.
“This is a very resilient problem, and we see different kinds of tobacco and nicotine products rise in popularity all the time, but we’ve learned over the years what works,” said Toby Gilbert, director of public awareness for Alhambra schools in southern California. “We may not have a specific program for Zyn, but we have been working on this issue for years and we’ll have to keep focused on that.”
The efforts schools have found to be effective include student-run awareness campaigns, education for students and parents on the dangers of nicotine and tobacco products, and counseling and rehab services for students who are caught using them.
Effective prevention strategy: ‘Kids talking to kids’
In Alhambra, the most effective strategy for battling teens’ nicotine and tobacco use has been “kids talking to kids,” Gilbert said.
In recent years, that’s included districtwide PSAs created by students, small group interventions when students have been caught using tobacco and nicotine products, and anti-tobacco education both in science class and during after-school programs.
It works, she said, because oftentimes students begin using the products because they’re branded as “the cool thing” and will help them bond and fit in with their peers. If that narrative changes, students tend to shy away from vapes and nicotine products, Gilbert said.
Alhambra students who are caught using nicotine or tobacco products more than once are required to attend individual or group substance abuse counseling sessions, Gilbert said. The district is also starting a “Saturday school” for repeat offenders and their parents to attend. There will be about six sessions, Gilbert said, on the dangers of using the products.
“We try to calibrate the way we respond so that we’re staying in conversation and collaboration with the students and their families,” Gilbert said.
Brian Swatland, principal of Williamsville East High School near Buffalo, N.Y., agreed that clearly establishing the expectations for students is important. That should include proactively communicating the dangers and consequences of using tobacco and nicotine products both through education campaigns and school district policy, he said.
Swatland also agreed that students seem to respond best when hearing from their peers.
Dida Akinlua, a Williamsville East junior, is a member of the district’s student advisory council and meets regularly with district leaders about issues important to students, including vaping and nicotine use.
Akinlua said her group has created and put up posters around the school to “passively educate” students about how vaping can be a problem and often meets with other students to hear their feedback and ideas about how to address nicotine and tobacco use.
“I think students like being heard and being involved in the solution,” Akinlua said.
Because the nicotine pouches are relatively new, the full range of health effects aren’t known. But experts say using the products could drive teens’ interest in and enjoyment of nicotine, leading to long-term addiction and the health effects that go along with it. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.
In the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 1.5 percent of middle and high school students reported using nicotine pouches within the 30 days prior to taking the survey.
‘The FDA must take action now to prevent Zyn from becoming the next Juul’
The popularity of Zyn among teens may be increasing thanks to social media.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, this month called on federal regulators to investigate Zyn for concerns about the marketing of its products and their health effects, according to CBS News.
The New York Democrat said the pouches are becoming the next “trend in addiction for teens” and that they “seem to lock their sights on teens and use social media to hook them.” He said “Zynfluencers” make videos and posts about the products on social media, which young people often see.
Zyn’s parent company, Philip Morris International, said it doesn’t market products to teens. In a statement to Education Week, a spokesperson said Zyn is intended as a smoke-free alternative for people already using tobacco or nicotine products. He said the company does not use social media influencers or “engage in product placement” for Zyn, and said employees monitor social media content and report “concerns where possible to address underage use, product misuse, and inappropriate content or claims.”
“Our marketing practices—which prohibit the use of social media influencers—are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry,” the statement said. “Real-world evidence shows this approach is working: the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA show oral nicotine pouch use by those under the legal age remains exceptionally low.”
Yolanda Richardson, president and CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement to Education Week that the organization supports Schumer’s call for a federal investigation into how Zyn is marketed and promoted, particularly on social media.
“We’re very concerned that Zyn is being promoted on social media in the exact same ways that fueled Juul’s popularity with kids,” Richardson said. “The FDA must take action now to prevent Zyn from becoming the next Juul and addicting yet more kids.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2024 edition of Education Week as A New Nicotine Challenge: What Schools Should Know About ‘Zyns’