Stand-off Between Kenyan Government and Tobacco Multinational Over ‘Nicotine Pouches’
As the popularity of tobacco products wanes, tobacco companies are developing new products to expand their markets.

NAIROBI – The Kenyan government issued a directive in mid-February this year requiring the tobacco industry to register all nicotine products as tobacco products – but the industry has yet to comply. 

This follows the decision by the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Mutahi Kagwe, to declare “nicotine pouches” illegal, thus overturning a decision last year by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) to license the manufacture and sale of nicotine products in the country.

 The criteria used to issue the license was not clearly defined, according to the Ministry of Health, hence the unprecedented move by the Cabinet Secretary.

The government’s directive comes in the wake of a nicotine production plant by the British American Tobacco (BAT) company being planned in Kenya. The plant will not only serve the east African region with nicotine products but will cater for the entire African market, making Kenya the gateway for nicotine products into the continent.

 Marketing Hub for Harmful Product

“Kenya is a manufacturing hub of this harmful tobacco product. It is unfortunate that they [BAT Kenya] are putting up another plant specifically to produce Lyft,” said Samuel Ochieng, CEO of the Consumer Information Network at a press briefing called by the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance towards the end of February.

Lyft is the brand name for the “nicotine pouches” being manufactured by BAT. These pouches are small bags of powder containing either tobacco-derived nicotine or synthetic nicotine, but no tobacco leaf, dust, or stem. People place them under the lip to get nicotine. 

All this comes a year after the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Mutahi Kagwe overturned an earlier decision by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) to license the manufacture and sale of nicotine products in the country.

The criteria used to issue the license was not clearly defined, according to the Ministry of Health, hence the unprecedented move by the Cabinet Secretary.

When asked about the government’s position on why Kenya was singled out by the tobacco multinational company, Kepha Ombacho, the Chief Public Health Officer in the Ministry of Health, told Health Policy Watch: “We cannot say for sure that they are targeting Kenya.”

Trying to Diversity Product Line

The tobacco industry is trying to diversify its product line after years of well-documented health risks associated with smoking has had an impact on consumers and industry profits. 

In the past week, the WHO published a new report calling for the strengthening of the tobacco control measures to protect the health of children.

The study, Tobacco Control To Improve Child Health and Development  found that of the 1.2 million deaths every year caused by second-hand tobacco smoke exhaled by smokers, 65,000 occur among children under 15 years.

However, the third edition of the WHO global report on the trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000-2025 published in 2019 shows a decline in tobacco use among people of both sexes in the world.

According to the report, about a third of the global population aged 15 years and above used of some form of tobacco in 2000. This rate declined by nearly 10% to about a quarter by 2015.

If current tobacco control efforts are maintained, the rate is projected to decline to around a fifth of the (20.9%) by the year 2025, says the report.

Use of Social Media Influencers

The furore generated by the Lyft nicotine pouches in Kenya was well captured by The Guardian in February, which detailed how the brand was using social media influencers to promote Lyft. 

The influencer in the article is a young beauty blogger with an Instagram following of more than 250,000 and a Youtube channel following of well over 55,000 subscribers. She appears to have deactivated her account and removed the Lyft tweets since the expose.

Meanwhile, a PR agent working for BAT even offered a Kenyan journalist a bribe to leak details about an investigation by Bureau for Investigative Journalism into how tobacco companies were targeting young people. BAT has since suspended the agency.

It is clear from these reports that tobacco companies have been using influencers that are popular among the youth to push their nicotine products.

This is made more serious because Kenya is a signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention of Tobacco Control (FCTC). Article 13 of the Convention clearly talks about banning all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

 The Ministry of Head’s Ombacho says that Lyft and any products that contain nicotine are not alternative products to tobacco and should be accompanied by clear labeling stating as much.

 Significant Health Risks

According to the Tobacco Act of 2007, tobacco companies are required to set aside 2% of their revenue to go into the Tobacco Fund to assist people suffering from the health effects associated with smoking.

Only BAT has started to make contributions to the fund although there are at least three active tobacco companies in Kenya, and Ombacho said that “they will just have to comply”.

Nicotine pouches appear to have been developed in Scandinavia. They have significant health risks. Issuing a health warning about them last November, Health Canada warned that they had not been authorised in the country and should not be used “by anyone”

“Nicotine is a highly toxic and addictive substance. Excessive amounts of nicotine can cause acute poisoning, resulting in respiratory failure and death,” according to Health Canada.

Image Credits: By Bystroushaak/ CC BY-SA 4.0, Chris Vaughan.

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