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Health authorities are keeping a close eye on a new type of flavoured nicotine product coming into Australia ahead of the federal government’s foreshadowed vaping crackdown.
Several websites and social media accounts are selling flavoured nicotine pouches, also known as “snus”, to Australians.
Nicotine pouches are increasingly being marketed to Australian vape users online. Credit: Getty
The tea bag-like sachets are placed between the upper lip and gum. Taking their cue from popular vaping products, which have been criticised for appealing to children and teenagers, the products come in brightly coloured packaging and sweet flavours.
Oral tobacco has been banned from sale in Australia since June 1991. However, these new brands boast that their products contain synthetic “tobacco-free” nicotine, claiming they can be legally used in this country despite the ban on oral tobacco.
Unlike traditional nicotine – a chemical derived from the tobacco plant – synthetic nicotine is made in a lab. It has existed for more than a century, but has recently gained popularity in flavoured vaping products due to its tastelessness.
Although tobacco-free nicotine would not be caught by the oral tobacco ban, tobacco-free nicotine pouches would still be considered an unregistered therapeutic good meaning they could only be legally supplied under medical supervision.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Aged Care said the federal government was taking a precautionary approach to “novel and emerging tobacco and nicotine products”.
Alecia Brooks, chair of the Cancer Council’s Tobacco Issues Committee, urged against using snus to quit vaping or smoking.
“Smokeless tobacco products carry high nicotine levels, often higher than traditional cigarettes,” she warned.
“Studies have shown links between using smokeless tobacco products and pancreatic cancer, oral cancer, pharyngeal cancer and local lesions in the mouth.”
She said people wanting to quit smoking or vaping should visit their local GP or call Quitline (13 78 48) where they can receive information and discuss the use of quit-smoking medication or nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), such as patches, gums and oral sprays.
In contrast, Emeritus Professor Wayne Hall, director of the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research at the University of Queensland, argued nicotine pouches were “a much lesser evil” than smoking or vaping.
In 2009, Hall co-authored a paper calling for Australia to reverse its ban on oral tobacco, citing the role snus had played in reducing smoking rates in Scandinavia.
Hall, who has also been critical of complicating access to vaping products for smoking cessation, said the pouches were less conspicuous than vapes and did not expose users to a respiratory risk.
“I don’t think these products should be sold in corner stores and widely promoted, but I think they should be able to be sold to adult smokers,” he said of synthetic nicotine pouches.
Dr Joshua Trigg, a public health researcher at Flinders University whose work focuses on Australia’s “tobacco endgame”, said he had started to get ads for nicotine pouches when listening to podcasts.
He said synthetic nicotine was a “new space” for regulation, noting it was possible that other forms of flavoured nicotine would rise in popularity when Australia bans disposable vapes, but this was only an assumption.
“We do see similar techniques marketing these products, with the colours and the flavours,” he said.
There is no date set for Australia’s foreshadowed vape import restrictions – which would ban disposable products and improve prescription processes – to take effect.
Brooks said the Cancer Council was confident that legislation and enforcement efforts would prevent access to illegal products but it would continue to monitor the market.
“The tobacco and vaping industry are continually finding new ways to market their products and addict a new generation to nicotine,” she said.
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