Joseph Hart 4 October 2023


Smokefree Partnership was in a celebratory mood this week. Belgium banned nicotine pouches as of October 1st. “Great news“, according to the coalition of anti-smoking NGOs.

Understandably, there was some pushback. Limiting citizens’ access to harm-reduction products isn’t something to celebrate if you want people to stop smoking. However, more perversely, if you are serious about being “smoke-free”, then you should be at least curious about smokeless products, like nicotine pouches.

However, after their buoyant tweet, things were about to get more embarrassing for the Smokefree Partnership when they attempted to push back on the criticism. The result was an intoxicating brew of petulance, arrogance, poor critical thinking, and a basic lack of curiosity or respect for research.

While the Twitter/X thread shows the perils of getting your teenage intern to do damage control, it also highlights the barriers and biases facing harm reduction products and advocates.

Before you read the tweets, here is a helpful translation of Smokefree Partnerships’ strange relationship to reason.

• “Facts” roughly translates as “the thing that I think.”

• “Tobacco” and “nicotine” can be used interchangeably when convenient

• If you want to criticise a product, you can cite research about totally different products to “prove” your point

• Research that challenges your biases is dangerous, so just don’t do it.

#1. Dr. Moira Gilchrist

, The Smokefree Partnership Celebrates Driving Users Back to Cigarettes, The Daily Pouch

Dr Moira Gilchrist works for Philip Morris. So, when she laughed at the irony of an NGO celebrating the ban of a smokeless harm-reduction product, it was entirely fair game. Of course, the sensitive souls over at Smokefree Foundation weren’t best pleased.

Tips for Smokefree Partnership:

• If you want to refute an argument, “play the ball, not the man”. Ad hominem attacks, while effective, are cheap.

• An unsupported accusation of bias or impropriety is not a “fact”; it’s just slinging mud.

• If Dr. Glichrist’s opinion is biased purely because she works for Philip Morris, the same logic stands for being an employee of an ideologically driven, well-capitalised NGO.

#2. “Nicotine pouch” research

, The Smokefree Partnership Celebrates Driving Users Back to Cigarettes, The Daily Pouch

According to SmokeFree Partnership, “some people” [citation needed] believe that nicotine pouches are harmless. Again, the great minds at the NGO demonstrate their poor grasp of harm reduction. No one thinks they are harmless; it’s called harm reduction. It’s right there in the name.

What’s obviously more embarrassing here is that they counter the strawman argument that “some people believe nicotine pouches to be harmless” with a widely criticised paper about snus. They are different products which Smokefree Partnership should know.

Tips for Smokefree Partnership:

• If you are going to cite a paper, it’s good practice to read it first

• Nicotine pouches and snus are different products 

• The paper that you cited may be confusing correlation with causation

#3. Pouches do help people quit cigarettes

, The Smokefree Partnership Celebrates Driving Users Back to Cigarettes, The Daily Pouch

Nicotine pouches are a relatively new product, so expecting decades-long studies that prove their effectiveness as a smoking cessation aid is a strange idea. However, there are a few reasons why people believe they can help people quit.

For starters, it’s an opinion expressed by people who quit cigarettes by using nicotine pouches. Also, while nicotine pouches and snus are different products, snus has helped people quit. (i.e. Sweden’s 5% smoking rate vs. EU’s 20%). So, there is a precedent for smokeless pouches driving down smoking prevalence rates.

Researchers found TSNAs in around 50% of the pouches they researched. Their recommendations (if you’d actually read the paper) are manufacturing improvements so that number can be reduced to zero.

Tips for Smokefree Partnership:

• If you want to criticise nicotine pouches, don’t cite research on tobacco products

• There is both qualitative and quantitative data on how pouches help people stop smoking if you care to find it.

• Read the research that you cite. It finds that “some” pouches could contain TSNAs. Here’s an idea: let’s use the ones that don’t have TSNAs.

Final thoughts

The Smokefree Partnership aren’t bad people. However, whatever intern they’ve put in charge of their Twitter is making a fool of the organisation.

Their inability to understand the difference between nicotine pouches and tobacco is embarrassing for an NGO whose sphere of expertise is meant to be tobacco. Of course, these elementary errors make it all the more galling that they want to lecture us about separating “facts” from “myths”.

Look, I get it. This is shooting fish in a barrel. The series of tweets in question were hastily rushed out the door with minimal foresight. Maybe it was someone’s first day.

, The Smokefree Partnership Celebrates Driving Users Back to Cigarettes, The Daily Pouch

As always, we need to fight bad information with data and solid reasoning. Don’t take these ideologue’s words at face value. Embrace curiosity so you have the information you need to make the right choice for you, whatever that might be.