By Priya Anand | Bloomberg
Whenever Mark Moran, chief executive officer of the investor relations firm Equity Animal, is about to perform a boring task, he has a ritual. He pops a Zyn nicotine pouch into his mouth.
Then his concentration sharpens, at least for a while. “Am I addicted to it? Absolutely,” he said. “But it’s something I very much enjoy.”
Zyn, a tiny bag of nicotine that fits under the lip, has become the latest performance-enhancing drug in certain corners of the corporate world. Like Adderall and caffeine before it, nicotine pouches contain a highly addictive stimulant. The products have sparked public health worries, even as they’ve inspired a fervent devotion among some workers in demanding industries like finance and tech.
“It’s almost become ubiquitous with juniors in the finance industry,” Moran said. “You’re working long hours, you’re bored. It’s discreet enough that you could have a Zyn in a client meeting. You could be talking to a partner. It’s culturally accepted in finance.”
Nicotine pouches are having a moment. Philip Morris International Inc. sold 105.4 million tins of Zyn in the US in the third quarter — a 66% jump — boosting its profit outlook for the year. In the four weeks ending Jan. 13, sales of Zyn were up 87%, according to a report from TD Cowen.
Meanwhile, in the first two weeks of January, US sales of smokeless tobacco and nicotine products jumped 12% while cigarette sales sank 10%. The trend is even more dramatic in Sweden. And across social media, hashtags like #Zynbabwe, #Zynladen and #Zynaccino have proliferated.
The makers of Zyn and products like it say they are intended to be a replacement for nicotine, aimed at people who want to stop using tobacco. But their wide popularity has raised alarms. In a statement, Philip Morris said, “Our products are not for those who don’t already use nicotine products, and never for those below the legal age of purchase.” That positioning hasn’t deterred so-called #Zynfluencers, enthusiasts like Moran and even Tucker Carlson, who embrace the product for other reasons.
In Silicon Valley, Zyn and similar products have appealed to a tech demographic that has long had an interest in performance enhancers, or nootropics. Billionaire investor Peter Thiel told a reporter in November he suspects nicotine is a “really good nootropic drug that raises your IQ 10 points,” and said he was considering using patches.
Andrew Huberman, a Stanford associate professor and host of a popular health and science podcast, has mused that nicotine enhances cognitive abilities. He’s also warned of the risks, particularly for young people. His podcast, popular with the techy health-optimization set, has nearly 5 million subscribers on YouTube, and has hosted tech leaders like venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.
On tech- and finance-centric social media, references to nicotine have spread. The venture capital-focused Instagram meme account @prayingforexits mused that while the average person was made of 72% water, a “California hard-tech founder” was “15% Zyn/Lucy.” An entrepreneur on the East coast joked on X, formerly Twitter, that nicotine had fueled a big tech stock rally: “Tech’s bullish divergence began right when zyn sales skyrocketed.”
Meal replacement business Soylent, co-founded about a decade ago by David Renteln, was once the poster-child of tech world bio-hacking. Now, Renteln is the chief executive officer Lucy Goods Inc., a company that makes nicotine gum and pouches. He said many users of nicotine pouches have previously vaped or smoked. “At least anecdotally, the people I know who consume Zyn among that office worker set previously used a different form of tobacco,” he said.
Like its competitors, Lucy is meant to be a tobacco cessation therapy – not a performance drug. That distinction is important, said Samy Hamdouche, the company’s co-founder. “As far as nootropics and people who are purely using nicotine for the cognitive benefit, our view on that is it’s a niche market,” he said.
Recently the proliferation of nicotine products has stoked controversy — particularly because these products, like vapes and cigarettes before them, can appeal to minors. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, last week called for federal action to crack down on Zyn and other brands in the US. “Today, I’m delivering a warning to parents, because these nicotine pouches seem to lock their sights on young kids, teenagers and even lower, and then use the social media to hook ’em,” he said.
Philip Morris said in a statement, “Our marketing is directed to legal-aged adults 21 + who already use nicotine products and deserve better, smoke-free alternatives to cigarettes.”
The risks of nicotine addiction — particularly through tobacco — are well-known and often devastating. At the same time, researchers have been enticed by nicotine’s potential benefits for cognition on and off for decades. In 1992, one study in a neuro-psychopharmacology journal said that “nicotine improves attention in a wide variety of tasks” and “improves immediate and longer-term memory” in healthy volunteers. Another 2020 study found that healthy non-smokers who took small doses of nicotine performed better in an assessment, versus groups that took larger doses, and groups of heavy smokers, leading the authors to write that “small doses of nicotine can have an activating function that leads to improved cognition.”
Anthony Fecarotta — founder of Linehaul.ai, which applies artificial intelligence to freight logistics — said he sees Zyn used at work in a variety of offices. Nicotine pouches are “transcending industries and social groups,” Fecarotta said. (In addition to tech founders, freight brokers have also picked up Zyn on the job, according to supply chain trade publication Freight Waves.)
Fecarotta uses Zyn pouches as an alternative to chewing tobacco, which he began in early adulthood. “I’m one of the many people who have lost the battle to nicotine,” Fecarotta said. But he worries some people are starting to use Zyn pouches or other nicotine products after never having considered the substance before.
“Nicotine is not like trying a supplement out. You can’t just stop it,” Fecarotta said. “It’s the most absurd idea I’ve heard in the nootropic discussion in a long time. … You’re playing with fire if you’re doing that. You better have ironclad willpower.”
(Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, has been a longtime champion of tobacco control efforts and has campaigned and donated money in support of a US ban on flavored e-cigarettes and tobacco.)
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