Joseph Hart 16 October 2023


I will resist any “Kenya believe it?” style puns and get straight to the point. Kenyan MP Sabina Chege recently entered parliament holding two cans of VELO pouches. However, it’s not because she was trying to stop smoking. Instead, she wanted to question Health Minister Susan Nakhumicha about why the products were available for sale in Kenya.

The background to this situation is a long-running battle with British American Tobacco (BAT). I’ll keep it brief.

In 2019, the BAT product Lyft was approved for sale across Kenya by the country’s drug regulatory authority, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB). However, Mutahi Kagwe, the then-secretary for health, suspended the sale of the product in 2020, suggesting the tobacco-free product should be regulated under the Kenyan Tobacco Control Act (KTCA).

So, regulatory responsibility was switched to the Tobacco Control Board, and in 2022, the sale of nicotine pouches was permitted again.

New attempts to ban nicotine pouches

BAT nicotine pouches are not made in Kenya. They are imported from a factory in Hungary. That detail is important because the main thrust of the argument to ban the pouches is about packaging. 

Under KTCA regulations, all tobacco and nicotine products must come with health warnings in both English and Kiswahili (the local name for Swahili). 

Currently, the products have a label that states, “This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical.” However, MP Sabina Chege also said, “Health experts say nicotine, natural or otherwise, has more health risks than addiction.”

What is notable about that sentence is its lack of precision. Saying that nicotine has health risks isn’t really saying anything. You need to establish what those health risks are and how bad they are. 

Many products, like sugar, coffee, and chocolate, have “health risks.” Alcohol certainly does. And so we regulate the products, not ban them. 

Also, it’s worth noting that, according to the NHS, “Although nicotine is a very addictive substance, it’s relatively harmless.” Similarly, per the Royal Society for Public Health, nicotine is “no more harmful to health than caffeine.”

Of course, Chege’s words have been seized upon by groups like the Nairobi-based Tobacco Control and Health Promotion Alliance. Instead of acknowledging that the basis for parliamentary action is about packaging, they tweeted that a nicotine pouch ban “will rescue a whole generation from death, disease, & disability.”

, Kenyan MP Tries to Ban Nicotine Pouches, The Daily Pouch

We’ve all gotten used to certain tobacco control advocacy groups’ hyperbole and moral panic. We’ve all rolled our eyes at the trenchant paranoia and scientific cherry-picking endemic in these organisations. However, if your “vision” is a tobacco-free Kenya, I submit that you should support a tobacco-free product.

Health Minister Nakhumicha has suggested the formation of a technical team to examine the KTCA and investigate the issue. One might wonder if this team’s technical abilities will extend to telling the difference between tobacco and nicotine. Or perhaps even understanding the difference between tobacco products you smoke which damage your health and tobacco products such as snus which you don’t has led to the lowest smoking-related illnesses in Sweden for Swedish men.

Smoking prevalence in Kenya

According to statistics from 2020, there are around 2.7 million smokers in Kenya. However, “Similar to many non-Western countries, cigarette smoking is a largely male practice in Kenya” (Shuter, 2021). 

The later study suggests smoking prevalence among men sits around 17% to 22%. Moreover, smoking disproportionately affects less educated and low-income citizens in the East African state. Any ban on nicotine pouches in Kenya will sell short these vulnerable populations.

Final thoughts

I’m not here to trash Kenya’s Tobacco Control and Health Promotion Alliance. If anything, I share their “vision” of a future where we are all tobacco-free and healthier. But, as a student of history, I know that we can’t ban our way there. 

Education, honest data, reasonable regulations, and smoke-free alternative products are how we solve the health problems caused by smoking: scaremongering and strange statements about how nicotine pouches cause death undermine the message and credibility of an organisation. 

If packaging is the issue, then compel manufacturers to abide by the regulations. It’s that simple.