The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

What the heck is a Zyn?

Members of the school community discuss factors that lead to the increase in use of nicotine pouches like Zyns among Gen Z and their health implications.

Looking around his 8:00 a.m. class, Kenny* was confident that no one was watching him in the back row. As his teacher discussed the past night’s reading, Kenny reached down and slowly unzipped the top pocket of his backpack, revealing a small cylindrical tin labeled “ZYN.” After waiting a few seconds to make sure no one had noticed, he twisted the lid off and popped a small white pouch into his mouth.

Though Kenny may have thought that he was alone popping a Zyn that morning, he is part of a national shift towards Zyns. About 420,000 middle and high school students reported using Zyns in the last 30 days, according to the 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey. The brand was founded in Sweden and sells small non-edible pouches that include three or six milligrams of nicotine, the addictive substance found inside tobacco. In addition, Zyns contain a granulation agent, fillers, pH balancers, sweeteners and flavorings. By placing the pouch in their upper lip for up to 30 minutes, users can increase euphoria and decrease stress. Zyns come in an assortment of flavors ranging from wintergreen to coffee, with their packaging resembling “Do Not Eat” silica gel packets.

Zyns are posited as a healthier alternative to cigarettes or e-cigarettes because of the absence of tobacco or smoke. Kenny said he began to use Zyns because he was curious about how he could consume nicotine in a healthier manner.

“My friends had some Zyns because they were trying to get off vaping,” Kenny said. “It’s better for you than vaping. It’s also stronger, meaning it gives you a better buzz. I was curious because it’s been popular as the new thing, similar to when vapes had just come out.”

Nolan*, a different student who has tried Zyns, said he continues to use them because he has come to enjoy the regular experience of ingesting nicotine.

“The first time you use one, it’s probably going to be horrible,” Nolan said. “It tastes bad, and a lot of people I know have gotten ‘nic-sick’ and thrown up. But after you get used to the taste, you feel like you’re floating through the clouds.”

Despite the purported benefits, Brett*, a member of the school community, said he prefers to use other non-smoke nicotine products because he does not see a significant benefit between the nicotine in Zyns and real tobacco.

“Especially in California, you can’t [smoke] inside venues,” Brett said. “I can still go into a movie theater or public place and do [tobacco] during intermission or whenever. I still use tobacco because there’s no reason to substitute something for the lab-grown nicotine in Zyns. It’s like drinking a Diet Coke. The chemicals are probably worse for you than the sugar in regular Coke.”

While Swedish Match – the Stockholm-based creator of Zyn – continues to promote their products, much remains unknown about the health effects of these nicotine pouches. Most of the research surrounding cigarettes, vapes and cigars focus on the tobacco itself, which has been shown to cause 12 different types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, nicotine alone can be just as dangerous.

Head of Peer Support and Counselor Tina McGraw ’01 said nicotine pouches can have the same effect as other tobacco products on a developing brain.

“Nicotine is so addictive because it releases a lot of dopamine, a short-term feel-good neurotransmitter that is part of the brain’s reward circuitry,” McGraw said. “Nicotine increases the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke among other effects. Teens should avoid nicotine as it causes long-term changes in the brain that may make it difficult to quit nicotine products.”

Despite being aware of the harmful health consequences, Kenny said he uses ZYN and other substances together because of the de-stressing effects he gets from combining drugs.

“A lot of people do Zyns when they drink because it gives you a better buzz,” Kenny said. “If you do it and smoke, it keeps you more active. I don’t really know the benefits but it’s better for your lungs because you don’t inhale it. You can get gum cancer, but I’d rather have that than lung cancer.”

Swedish Match sold 116 million cans in the fourth quarter in the U.S., a 78% increase from 2022, according to Philip Morris International, the tobacco company that owns Marlboro and acquired Swedish Match in 2022. Much of the quick rise in popularity can be attributed to “Zynfluencers” or certain influencers on TikTok and other social media apps that promote these products.

Zynfluencers do not follow the conventions of most influencers, who promote their sponsors with a “Click my link for a 10% discount on a VPN” pitch. Instead, they build a following based on their purported charismatic personality, according to the Guardian. Well-known figures, including former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and relatively unknown TikTokers alike have promoted Zyns as an essential part of their lifestyle, garnering millions of likes.

In a press release, Philip Morris International Chief Communications Officer Moira Gilchrist said ZYN does not have official partnerships with influencers and is not being marketed to teenagers intentionally.

“First of all, we market and sell these products only to people who are of age,” Gilchrist said. “People need to understand that we market and sell these products to people who would otherwise continue to smoke or use other nicotine products. These products are highly regulated and have been on the market for more than 10 years. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the government has had time to collect data, on potential underage use, for example. Recent data has shown that levels are actually extremely low.”

Gilchrist is correct: overall tobacco use declined in 2023 from 16.5% to 12.6%, totaling about 2.8 million students across the country, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Callum MacLachlan ’26 said students are indirectly influenced by what they see on social media.

“It’s a trendy thing,” MacLachlan said. “People see influencers with five in at once and Instagram models doing it. I think that kind of makes [students] ask themselves, ‘Oh, what is this? I should see what it is like.’ There’s some pressure of encouraging friends to try one.”

Head of Upper School Security Earl Saunders said Zyns are no different from cigarettes, chewing tobacco or vapes, but the culture surrounding nicotine has changed considerably in the past decade.

“When I was nine years old, my other brother and I decided to see what a cigarette tastes like,” Saunders said. “My dad saw me and said, ‘Oh you want to smoke?’ He pulled out a fresh one and gave it to me. I didn’t want to smoke it, but he made me smoke the whole thing. I was sick and couldn’t breathe for four or five days because I had bronchitis. I never touched a cigarette again. Nowadays, I don’t think that environment exists too much. Half of the teachers at [a] given school used to be hooked, and now we never see any teachers going for a quick smoke break.”

MacLachlan said he does not understand the benefits of Zyns or other drugs.

“I get the appeal [of Zyns], but I don’t do drugs because you don’t need it,” MacLachlan said. “It’s not something I need in my system. I’m trying to be successful every day and come to school and go to practice with my best mindset. There’s nothing that I need [drugs] for, so why should I start if I’m not addicted now?”

*Name has been changed.

Illustration by Eva Park. Photos by Alden Detmer.

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About the Contributor
Alden Detmer, Assistant Features Editor

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  • R

    Rod DetmerMar 31, 2024 at 10:48 am

    An extremely well researched and written article. Well done Alden!

  • L

    LisaMar 28, 2024 at 8:27 am

    Good read with lots of facts and actual case studies noted.