What is Zyn and why is it harmful?

Parents might not be familiar with Zyn, an oral nicotine pouch, but college students certainly are.

"It was huge on my campus and we have Illinois Wesleyan right next to us as well," said Grace Thompson, an intern at Candor Health Education who will graduate from Illinois State University with a degree in public health in May. "Between those two schools, it would just be everywhere. There would be younger people who would come down for homecoming or parties, and you'd see them doing it as well."

Zyn is the most popular brand of oral nicotine pouches, which first came out in the early 2000s but were eclipsed by the rise of e-cigarettes and vapes. Because the pouches do not contain any actual tobacco leaves, they are not classified or regulated by the FDA as smokeless tobacco products. But the pouches typically have higher levels of nicotine and are absorbed directly into the bloodstream, Thompson said.

Sales skyrocketed from $126 million in 2019 to $808 million in 2022, Thompson learned while researching the topic for an article she wrote for Candor's website.

Social media has exposed more young people to the product, Thompson said, with "Zynfluencers" posting on TikTok.

"There's definitely addictions to (social media) and all the things that are attracting them to the newest, brightest, most popular thing," she said. "They want that for sure."

The pouches, like vapes, come in a variety of flavors that appeal to teens. They also can be consumed more discreetly.

"It's not anything I'm smoking, so it's easier to hide from my parents," kids might think, according to Thompson.

And while the sale of nicotine pouches is limited to adults 21 and older, it's often easy for minors to get their hands on the product.

"They can find someone who is 21 who can buy for them," Thompson said. "There are so many gas stations and smoke shops that don't card properly."

While there is a shortage of research about the long-term effects of nicotine, Thompson said a nicotine addiction in a young person can cause significant damage.

"There is a lot of development happening in their brain, and nicotine can definitely inhibit that development because of all the chemicals and how it reacts with your brain," she said, citing issues with memory and attention span.

"That could lead to problems in school and getting in trouble," Thompson said.

Developing an early addiction to nicotine also could predispose teens to a drug or alcohol addiction as they get older.

"That can definitely make it easier for them to become addicted to worse substances," Thompson said.

She said she hopes more parents and teachers will be aware of the product, which can look like a pack of gum or mints, and have open and honest conversations with kids about the dangers of nicotine use.

"If you sit down and explain things to them and explain the why - a lot of times kids just want the why," she said.

- by Pamela Lannom

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean