Joseph Hart 30 August 2023

 

The Lithuanian government doesn’t want to wait around for broader EU regulations on nicotine pouches. Instead, they’ve punched up a draft that aims to regulate the harm-reduction product’s availability, strength, and advertising.

The Lithuanian Ministry of Economy and Innovation is behind the draft. They’re moving to fill the regulatory black hole surrounding nicotine pouches in the country. If approved, it should come into force in 2024.

Overall, the news is positive. In 2020, The Baltic Times reported the government had set up a task force to explore the potential legalisation of nicotine pouches in the state. Currently, pouches are unregulated in Lithuania, with citizens resorting to online channels to help replace cigarettes. A move toward standardisation could positively impact health outcomes in the country.

What is in the draft proposal?

The Ministry of Economy and Innovation’s draft proposal is sensible in parts and misguided in others. In many ways, it’s what we’ve all come to suspect from public officials grappling with harm-reduction products.

The Good

The first point of note is that pouches will be defined as “tobacco substitutes”. The WHO FCTC wants people to pretend that tobacco and nicotine are the same things, so the Lithuanian coalition government is already out in front by accurately categorising the products they’ve spent years researching.

The draft proposes a limit of 16 mg per nicotine pouch. A German study puts bioavailability at around 50%. For context, cigarettes contain between 6 and 20mg, with a bioavailability of up to 80%, depending on what study you read. So these limits are set at a reasonable range.

Childproof packaging and pack limits of 20 pieces are also sensible. No one wants a child to get sick by unwittingly swallowing a box of nicotine pouches.

The inclusion of standard fare health warnings is also good. However, they’ll probably be fairly vague and may exaggerate the risks associated with nicotine pouches. It’s unlikely that warnings will place pouches in their proper context as the least harmful way to consume nicotine.

Other than that, there is the usual notification procedure for products and some sales report requirements for manufacturers—fairly standard TDP processes.

The Bad

Of course, there is one big issue with the draft: the flavour ban. You see, last year, the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia met to discuss drug policy. Central to the two-day discussion were nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes.

You might be thinking that if nicotine use is a central drug policy concern in these areas, they must have already taken care of more severe substance abuse problems already. However, news reports suggest that drug abuse is rising in Lithuania. Still, without reliable data, it’s hard to be sure if it’s just an attempt at cheap point-scoring by government opposition or representative of more concrete concerns. Wherever the truth lies, the Lithuanian government is making a mistake here.

Smokers have consistently expressed the importance of flavour options in alternative tobacco products. Restrict product features that help people give up smoking, and fewer people will give up smoking. It’s not rocket science. If you’re serious about public health, you need to get these things right.

Of course, the Ministry of Economy and Innovation has probably been led down the garden path by fanciful claims that fruit and sugar flavours specifically target youth populations, despite data showing these flavours are popular among all demographics. Lithuanian pouchers should put their foot down and demand access to the flavours they want.

Final thoughts

World Bank statistics suggest that the smoking prevalence rate in Lithuania is 30.78%, well over the EU average. The draft report quotes a Nielsen Omnibus report from 2020 that places nicotine pouch use at 0.4%.

Should this draft pass, nicotine pouches would become a legal and accessible option, which could eat into the smoking market share. A flavour ban would diminish those prospects.

If you’re in Lithuania and want to access nicotine pouches in various flavours, make your opinion heard. The draft suggests that the coalition government is open to practical and evidence-based thinking on smoking alternatives; you won’t be shouting into the void.