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How nicotine pouches became the latest political battle

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Maybe you've heard of those little nicotine pouches called Zyn. You stuffed them in your upper lip and absorbed the nicotine orally. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the FDA to investigate Zyn and its effect on teens, and he may have unwittingly walked into a conservative culture war. Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted, quote, "this calls for a Zynsurrection (ph)." North Carolina Representative Richard Hudson dared, quote, "Big Brother Schumer to come and take it." David Weigel reported on this for Semafor, and he's with us in the studio to explain. Hi, David.

DAVID WEIGEL: Hi. It's good to be here.

PFEIFFER: How did these nicotine pouches, and specifically Zyn, become so big among the right wing?

WEIGEL: Well, I noticed from talking to Democrats that they had no idea this is happening, but it was happening very openly in conservative media. Tucker Carlson, I would say, is the the first zynfluencer (ph) who really mattered on the right. He semifamously used to smoke, moved to nicotine gum, moved to Zyn a couple years ago and swears by it. He calls it a mind-enhancing drug. And he also came up with this heuristic, which I heard from a lot of conservatives, that right now, the state, from Democrats to business-friendly Republicans, they want to legalize THC. They want to legalize marijuana, but they want to keep banning nicotine. Why is that? His construction was THC makes you lazy and compliant. Nicotine wakes you up and makes you achieve things. And I heard that from across the board. I started talking to Republicans about Zyn.

PFEIFFER: But there, of course, has been push back and regulatory action before against nicotine and the tobacco industry. I'm thinking about the recent FDA actions on flavored vaping. How does this reaction to Zyn compare to what we've seen before?

WEIGEL: Well, it's in that stream, and it really picked up in 2016. There was action from the Obama administration to get rid of flavored Juul flavors, and there was an organizing on the right around this. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform was the best known person doing this, putting organization together called vape the vote and getting people to go to vape shops, and especially in Wisconsin, where Ron Johnson, the senator, was up for reelection, tell people in vape shops, hey, you might not care about politics, but Democrats are coming for your vapes, and Republicans are not. Vote for Ron Johnson.

PFEIFFER: So in your reporting, David, you quote someone saying that attempts by Democrats to crack down on Zyn is, quote, "about to make a lot of people single-issue Republican voters."

WEIGEL: Right.

PFEIFFER: How much of that is hyperbole and how much do you think some voters would actually cast a ballot based solely on a politician's stance on nicotine?

WEIGEL: It's very small. Would Ron Johnson have won without a vape the vote campaign? Possibly. But the sort of voters who are receptive to that might not be voters. They might be people - and this is a lot of the MAGA-Trump coalition - a lot of working-class people who don't trust politicians, who don't pay a lot of attention, but they'll notice if they go to the gas station and something costs more or something's been taken off the shelf. Hey, what happened to this flavored pack I like? Well, it's gone. The governor regulated. The FDA took it off. All right, what do I do now? And the goal of some of this - it's very embryonic. Getting conservatives to care about this is saying, if you're angry about that, come out and vote Republican. We'll take care of it.

PFEIFFER: By the way, how much do we know about the actual health impacts of nicotine pouches, other than the fact that nicotine is addictive?

WEIGEL: We don't know as much yet. In terms of whether they cause cancer, now, you do take it by putting your upper lip or in your lower lip. Nicotine salt dissolves. There are chemicals in it. We don't know entirely what is happening with the chemicals. There have been studies, and this is always fraught. Have you ever covered the nicotine industry? It's always fraught when a study says this is very safe, let's see who funded it and let's see what comes out when a university takes a look at this in a few years later. It takes time. So we know it's not as bad for you in the ways that smoking is. The way - you're not inhaling something. You're not inhaling carcinogens. We don't know fully what the effects are. We do know that it's being advertised as much safer than the nicotine paths that you're used to taking.

PFEIFFER: How aware are Democrats that this could be a political liability?

WEIGEL: They are aware now. I don't think when Chuck Schumer had that first press conference a couple weeks ago, he was aware of the cultural power that Zyn had among some conservatives. They did in the days following that become aware of that. And they have not talked much about it. John Fetterman was the only Democratic senator who's not Chuck Schumer who got asked about this. His impulse - and this is sort of the Fetterman story, you know, a guy who carries himself like a working-class Democrat - said he just didn't think the government should be in that business, just saying what is good and bad for people? If we're going to have legal booze, why won't we have legal Zyn? And I didn't hear many Democrats talk about this, certainly not of their own volition, once Fetterman had said that. There are lots of non-Democrats who might be convinced to vote for a Democrat on one issue or another. Why alienate them by saying you're going to take this product away?

PFEIFFER: That's David Weigel, a political reporter for Semafor. David, thank you.

WEIGEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Sacha Pfeiffer
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.