Don't push the pouch: Convenience stores want N.L. to fight feds on proposed nicotine pouch rules

Zonnic nicotine pouches are the “latest craze” among youth because of their colourful, candy-like packaging and flavours, says Dr. Leslie Phillips, a professor at Memorial University’s School of Pharmacy.
Zonnic nicotine pouches are the 'latest craze' among youths because of their colourful, candy-like packaging and flavours, says Dr. Leslie Phillips, a professor in Memorial University’s school of pharmacy. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The Convenience Industry Council of Canada is asking the Newfoundland and Labrador government to push back against proposed federal regulations that could see nicotine replacement therapies — such as nicotine pouches — removed from corner stores.

The not-for-profit group, which represents convenience stores such as Marie's Mini Mart and North Atlantic, says the federal government is overstepping its boundaries and will hurt retailers if it mandates that nicotine products be sold behind the counter at pharmacies.

That regulation is up to the discretion of individual provinces and has already been implemented in British Columbia and Quebec. Federal Health Minister Mark Holland has signalled he wants the rest of the country to follow suit.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Matthew Kronberg, spokesperson for the federal health minister, said Parliament recently passed an amendment to the Food and Drugs Act that "will allow Health Canada to rapidly improve regulations" to help prevent youth access to nicotine products.

Kronberg said Health Canada is consulting stakeholders about the proposed measures.

Dr. Leslie Phillips, a professor in Memorial University's school of pharmacy, said nicotine pouches are the "latest craze" among youth because of their colourful, candy-like packaging and flavours.

Nicotine pouches, which are placed inside a person's mouth between their gums and upper lip, have been authorized for sale in Canada since last July.

Phillips says she has mixed opinions about putting nicotine pouches behind the counter at pharmacies but they shouldn't be in convenience stores.

"The retailers' association, convenience store associations, they are all funded heavily by Big Tobacco. They have a stake in this. They get money for their association, they get money for selling these products," said Phillips, who also runs the university's smoking-cessation program.

"They are interested in the almighty dollar, just like Big Tobacco is. They don't care about your health."

Mike Hammoud is the vice president for the Convenience Industry Council of Canada's Atlantic division. He says the Newfoundland and Labrador government should push back against proposed federal regulations that could see nicotine replacement therapies — such as nicotine pouches — removed from convenience stores.
Mike Hammoud says the Newfoundland and Labrador government should push back against proposed federal regulations that could see nicotine replacement therapies — such as nicotine pouches — removed from convenience stores. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Mike Hammoud, vice-president of the CICC's Atlantic division, says convenience stores aren't responsible for the  products getting into the hands of youths.

"The fact that anyone could comment that we are the problem and that you need to move these products from a convenience store to another location kind of really hurts our feelings a little bit," said Hammoud.

"We have shown multiple times that we're responsible at selling beer, we're responsible at selling tobacco, we're responsible at selling vaping products. How could we not be responsible at selling pouches?"

Newfoundland and Labrador's Health Department turned down an interview request from CBC News, providing instead a written statement from spokesperson Jennifer Konieczny, who said the province has seen an increase in nicotine use among youth.

Konieczny said legislative amendments will be informed by ongoing public consultations, which were launched May 30.

Youth access

The only nicotine pouch legally sold in Canada is Zonnic, a brand owned by the cigarette manufacturing company Imperial Tobacco Canada. Zonnic describes the pouches on its website as being designed so "nicotine can be delivered discreetly."

There are no federal restrictions on how Zonnic is advertised or at what age someone can buy it because the pouches were authorized by Health Canada under its "natural health product regulations."

However, people in Newfoundland and Labrador have to be 19 or older to purchase the product at convenience stores that are members of the CICC, or any other major chain that has implemented age restrictions. Hammoud says the CICC lobbied the federal government to implement age restrictions when the product was first authorized.

Holland released a statement in March that said Health Canada is "pursuing legislative and regulatory mechanisms" to restrict youth access to nicotine products, such as pouches, by implementing restrictions on advertising, flavours and "place of sale."

Dr. Leslie Phillips, a professor at Memorial University’s School of Pharmacy, says nicotine pouches are the “latest craze” among youth because of their colourful, candy-like packaging and flavours.
Leslie Phillips says nicotine pouches shouldn't be available for purchase in convenience stores. (Jessica Singer/CBC)

The CICC doesn't have a problem with the Canadian government banning certain flavours or marketing techniques, says Hammoud, but moving nicotine replacement products out of convenience stores could have unintended consequences.

Pouches with higher levels of nicotine can be illicitly bought online with ease, said Hammoud, so limiting the places that can legally sell the product may force people to rely on alternative — and illegal — routes.

He says the decision could also threaten small businesses in rural areas of the province while taking away the responsibility historically given to provincial governments to dictate where and how the products are sold.

"Unintendedly, we always become the scapegoat or we become the people that get thrown under buses," said Hammoud.

"We are very good and very responsible at selling age-gated products."

Convenience

While moving nicotine pouches behind pharmacy counters is a good idea, said Phillips, there are other nicotine replacement therapies that aren't used as often by youths, such as Nicorette gum.

If the federal government regulations were to mandate all nicotine products be sold behind the pharmacy counters, she said, it could set up unnecessary barriers for adults who are trying to quit smoking.

Kevin Coady, the executive director of the Alliance for the Control of Tobacco, said the key word is "convenience."

If the product is intended to help people quit smoking, said Coady, it should be sold behind pharmacy counters so  people can also receive advice and support from pharmacy staff before purchasing.

Around 40 per cent of youths in Newfoundland and Labrador indicate they have tried or are using vaping products, he said, so he hopes the federal government will implement more restrictions on pouches before they become as popular as vaping.

"Having these in the convenience store is just too convenient," he said.

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