The rise of zynfluencers promoting nicotine pouches as study aids

Zyns, or ‘lip pillows’, are all over TikTok, where they’re being used as everything from work fuel to gym performance enhancers

Hero image in post
Hero image in post

Zyns, or ‘lip pillows’, are all over TikTok, where they’re being used as everything from work fuel to gym performance enhancers

By Megan Wallace28 May 2024

2024 is the year that vapes left the chat. With plans to ban disposable vapes announced in January, politicians aren’t just coming for your Elf Bar, they’re trying to bar Gen Alpha from ever participating in the time-honoured tradition of sneaking a cig behind the bike shelter. In April, MPs voted in support of a bill which would prevent those born in or after 2009 from ever being able to legally buy tobacco products.

While our government may well succeed on their mission to create a smoke-free generation, it won’t necessarily be nicotine-free. If you’ve been on TikTok recently, you’ll have realised ‘zyns’ – a reference to the dominant brand of nicotine pouches – are literally everywhere. Bearing a striking resemblance to gum in terms of its appearance, packaging and range of flavours, nicotine pouches can fly under the radar IRL. But, on social media, the white stuff is hyper visible.

These harmless-looking pouches are inserted between the upper lip and gum and, far more discreet than vapes or cigs, they’ve become a go-to for Gen Z. Differently to snus, which is banned in the UK, they contain zero tobacco. These are just some of the reasons why Hunter, 21 and based in the States, took up zyning three years ago. “I was introduced to zyn at a fraternity party and fell in love. I didn’t vape or smoke but I was attracted to the flavours,” he says. “It doesn’t leave a bad smell or a bad taste, you can do it in any public setting and it’s very convenient.”

Unlike your typical smoker, Hunter is also part of a thriving digital subculture – having amassed a 40,000-strong following on TikTok, where he posts about golf, his girlfriend and, you guessed it, zyns. He’s not alone: across a range of hashtags – from the zany (#lippillows, #upperdecky) to the questionable (#zynbabwe, #imazyner) – TikTok is stacked with videos extolling the virtues of zyns. Sometimes, this content is as simple as reviewing different flavours but it can tip into the bizarrely hyperbolic: zyn birthday cakes, amateur drumming with zyn cans, even zyn-branded dog toys.

For 26-year-old American creator Big Chops – who posts zyn reviews online and whose real name remains hidden, to protect his privacy – there are as many downsides as there are upsides to the zynfluencer world. Namely, he notes that zyntok can be helpful for folk trying to stop vaping or smoking given that nicotine pouches are arguably less harmful (though it’s worth saying that the makers of Zyn have been sued for reportedly marketing themselves as a smoking cessation device, when they havent been approved for this use).

“It’s a mixed bag. I know it’s helped a lot of people kick bad smoking or vaping habits, which is a great thing,” he says. “But I also see some people taking the nicotine pouch consumption to an extreme, trying to outdo other content creators by consuming higher and higher amounts of nicotine for shock value.”

It’s worth pondering how, exactly, zyn has taken over – and whether its TikTok dominance is as organic as it seems. Entering the market in 2016 (though the Zyn brand, which has driven the trend, launched in 2019) nicotine pouches’ popularity have rapidly grown. In the US, sales of the general product rose from $710k in 2016 to $216 million by June 2020 – now US sales of the ZYN brand alone are predicted to reach $2 billion for 2024.

But what’s behind this? Well, not to give you a Scooby Doo mask reveal moment, but it’s… Big Tobacco, AKA the companies who have boosted profits through child labour and exploiting war zones. “Despite not containing tobacco, most of these products are manufactured and sold by traditional tobacco companies,” says Dr Harry Tattan-Birch, a researcher in Behavioural Science and Health. “There has been an aggressive advertising push for nicotine pouches over the past four years.”

The aim of Big Tobacco – including Phillip Morris International, the owner of Zyn parent company Swedish Match – appears to be creating a new generation of nicotine addicts to pedal products to, even as governments crack down on cigarettes and vapes. And, in classic form, health misinformation is key in order to help them achieve this goal. One of the most surprising aspects of the online discourse about nicotine pouches is the way they are being presented as something of a wellness tool.

In the TikTok cottage industry of reposting Joe Rogan clips, you can see ad-finitum snippets of the right-wing podcaster discussing nicotine pouches – and discussing the so-called nootropic qualities of nicotine. Wellness bro Andrew Huberman has also made similar claims. And it’s not just pseudo-famous podcasters – regular users are posting TikToks about nicotine pouches helping them to get through work and even the gym. Hunter, for his part, notes that nicotine has helped him as a study aid; “Personally, it helps me calm down and focus. It allows my brain to concentrate on one certain thing very easily and allows me to lock in.

But how true is this? According to certified Functional Medicine Nutritionist, Daniel O'Shaughnessy, there is some merit to these claims. “Nicotine is sometimes considered a nootropic because it has cognitive-enhancing effects,” he explains. “Nicotine can enhance attention, alertness, and focus. It stimulates the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and acetylcholine, which are associated with improved cognitive function.”

However, O'Shaughnessy is dubious about the positioning of nicotine pouches within the wellness space. “Even with this, it’s not advised due to the health risks and addiction potential. Plenty of other nootropics are safer to use, like theanine or rhodiola,” he explains. So, what are the health risks at play?

Well, nicotine pouches might not contain tobacco but they have been associated with adverse health effects: namely, receding gums and potential heart problems. There’s also the issue that nicotine – while not in itself carcinogenic – can promote cancer progression. Anecdotally, folks online are discussing the difficulties of nicotine pouch addiction: noting that it can lead to increased anxiety, sweating and heart rate and that weaning off of pouches can be extremely difficult and uncomfortable. Which, of course, is consistent with what many of us have gone through when trying to kick a vaping or cigarette habit.

Ultimately, Tattan-Birch believes that while nicotine pouches are likely less harmful than cigarette smoking, we still have to wait for longer-term evidence – given that they’ve only been popularised over the past half decade. However, it’s important not to buy into the idea that they are completely harm-free or even healthy.

“My view is that, if people intend to consume nicotine recreationally, this is the least harmful way to do so. Therefore, these products should ideally only be used as an alternative to smoking (or vaping),” Tattan-Birch explains. “People who do not smoke or vape should not use nicotine pouches. The risk is that the widespread advertising of pouches might be leading people – including children – who would never have smoked or vaped to start try nicotine and subsequently become dependent on it.”

Whether or not you’re already a smoker or vaper and you fancy taking up nicotine pouches, it’s important to know what nicotine does to your body and mind so that you can make informed decisions. To find this out, make sure to do thorough research via fact-checked resources rather than relying on the unregulated world TikTok. At the end of the day, it’s your choice what you do with your body but, for the love of God, don’t trust Joe Rogan’s health advice.