The sale of nicotine pouches in Belgium has been banned on the grounds they pose a danger to public health, particularly due to their potential for addiction.
Federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke, a member of the centre-left Vooruit party, put the ban through by royal decree – a Belgian legislative move used to swiftly implement an action under the responsibility of the issuing minister.
The decree will come into effect on 1st July 2023, when it is set to be published in the official journal. For retailers, the sales ban will apply from 1st October. Cannabinoid pouches will also be prohibited.
The royal decree, published on 24th March, states: “The objective of the ban is to prevent the known and potential harmful effects of using these new products on health, to discourage their use by young people, and to avoid any negative consequences on efforts to combat smoking.”
These pouches can be considered as similar to tobacco-based products, “serving as a substitute for traditional tobacco-based products and capable of causing similar health risks and social consequences”. The decree also notes the risk that a nicotine pouch user may end up switching to snus, a product prohibited in Belgium.
To justify this ban legally, Vandenbroucke also refers to Directive 2014/40/EU on the manufacture, presentation and sale of tobacco and related products, which states that an EU member state “should remain free to maintain or introduce national legislation applicable to all products placed on its national market with regard to aspects that are not regulated by this directive”. However, prior notification is required for technical national regulations in accordance with Directive 98/34/EC.
In the name of preventing youth addiction
“These nicotine pouches, like e-cigarettes and vaping, can be a gateway to smoking at a young age,” the health minister had previously argued in January. “That is why we are resolutely opting for their ban. We are doing this because the protection of the health of children and young people is an absolute priority.”
According to research by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), nicotine pouches contain enough nicotine to cause addiction and have a harmful effect on the brain, especially in young people.
Vandenbroucke adds that there is also a lack of social control by parents over the consumption of these products among young people, which can perpetuate potential addiction, and the decree says: “In addition, due to their low body weight, children are more sensitive to unwanted side effects.”
The health minister says about the ban on cannabinoid pouches that “for CBD products, there is less information available, but because of the great similarities (appearance, mode of use), this is also prohibited”.
Vandenbroucke cites a recent Dutch survey to show that nicotine pouches are popular among young people. The survey found that 5% of young people are aware of them and 25% use them. Among children under 12 surveyed, 1.2% use nicotine pouches.
Nicotine pouches were legalised as consumer products in Belgium in 2021 and became popular due to marketing by tobacco companies like British American Tobacco (BAT). BAT sponsored events like the Tomorrowland music festival, according to association “Generation Sans Tabac”, and sold their Velo and Lyft products, the two largest nicotine pouch brands in Belgium.
BAT condemned the health minister’s decision.
A BAT spokesperson said: “We are shocked by the minister’s decision. If the health minister truly wants to achieve a tobacco-free generation, Belgium should change course and give full place to tobacco alternatives, as recommended by the High Council of Health in June last year. With this decision, smokers will continue to smoke, and those who want to use nicotine pouches will turn to the illegal market or abroad. This is an own goal for public health in Belgium.”
Philip Morris also criticised the upcoming ban.
Other bans to follow?
Outside of Belgium, nicotine pouches are considered and regulated as tobacco-like products in some countries, including Australia (with a total ban), Hungary, Denmark, Latvia, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Norway. New Zealand and Norway have banned them until it is proven that they are less harmful than regular tobacco-based products.
Could Europe now expect to see a wider ban? The Belgian government notified a proposal to ban the manufacture and marketing of nicotine and cannabinoid pouches to the TRIS database in June 2022, to which Croatia, Hungary and Sweden reacted negatively.
Hungary and Sweden are among the countries that manufacture nicotine pouches. Industry association Tobacco Europe also criticised the proposal. TobaccoIntelligence asked Vandenbroucke what impact such criticisms could have, but he did not respond to the request.
At the same time, the Italian Customs and Monopolies Agency (ADM) sent a letter to retailers and manufacturers in the country asking them to suspend sales of nicotine pouches until the Ministry of Health has analysed the content and safety of those currently on the market.
With conflicting viewpoints and ongoing debates, it will be up to policy-makers and regulators to navigate these contentious waters and determine any future course of action.
– Sonia Romero TobaccoIntelligence contributing writer
Photo: Jorge Fernández Salas