As he delivered a speech to a room of reporters and lawmakers on Jan. 31, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was looking for laughs.
“It’s a very unsettling time here in Congress, as we all know,” Schumer said at an annual press corps dinner. “The House has been in endless chaos. Supreme Court justices ethics are in question. Donald Trump has declared he will return and rule as dictator.”
And then Schumer delivered his punchline: “And apparently, worst of all, I said ZYN shouldn’t be marketed to kids.”
Schumer’s joke came days after he cautioned parents about the popular tobacco-free nicotine pouches which have become all the rage—particularly in circles of young conservatives. At a January press conference, Schumer warned of so-called “ZYNfluencers” who promote the product on social media, with Schumer claiming ZYN is marketing itself to youngsters with flavors ranging from citrus to cinnamon.
He called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the product’s marketing, and for the Food and Drug Administration to look into ZYN’s health effects.
He described the product as a “pouch packed with problems.”
“I am delivering a warning to parents because these pouches seem to lock their sights on young kids, teenagers and even lower—and then use the social media to hook ’em,” he said.
Predictably, Schumer’s comment outraged conservative politicians, influencers, and media personalities—like noted ZYN enthusiast Tucker Carlson—who celebrate the tobacco-free pouches.
ZYN users boast that the nicotine product has work-enhancing properties without the carcinogenic dangers of tobacco. (Some studies back-up claims that nicotine can be a performance enhancer, but the scientific jury is still out on ZYN’s cancer-causing risks.)
The Senate GOP’s campaign arm has had a field day with Schumer’s comments. And the head of the House GOP’s campaign arm, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), posted a photo of himself, decked out in hunting gear, proudly displaying a tin of coffee-flavored ZYN.
Big Brother Schumer doesn’t want us to chew or smoke.
Now he’s against an alternative that’s helped many quit.
Come and take it! pic.twitter.com/vVeFLlVSal
— Rep. Richard Hudson (@RepRichHudson) January 24, 2024
That last phrase—“Come and Take It!”—is a Spartan battle cry that has subsequently been used in the American Revolution, the Texas Revolution, the Civil War, presidential politics, and the NHL. It’s also now become an ultra-online rallying cry to own the libs over their concerns about ZYN. (Never mind that Schumer has not called for a ban on ZYN, introduced ZYN-related legislation, or even recommended specific ZYN regulations.)
“Come and take it, Chuck,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC)—a former ZYN user—also posted on X.
ZYN is just the latest random partisan food fight on Capitol Hill. In the hyper-political atmosphere of Congress, Schumer’s conservative critics have relished painting the Senate leader as a menacing nanny-state boogeyman, trying to yank ZYN off the gas station shelves. Multiple Republicans posed a rhetorical question to The Daily Beast: If Schumer comes for ZYN, what’s next?
It’s of little consequence to these Republicans that Schumer has not actually called for a ZYN ban. Never let the pesky facts get in the way of good politics.
Still, Schumer’s focus on ZYN has also presented Republicans with the opportunity to go after Schumer on all the other things he’s not focused on.
“He’s not doing anything about fentanyl,” Sen. Ted Budd (R-NC) told The Daily Beast. “This border crisis is between he and Biden and their policies, and they’re going after ZYN. That’s quite hypocritical.”
There’s, of course, a certain irony in Budd and other Republicans going after Schumer on the border, given that the Senate majority leader backed a bill to bolster security at the U.S.-Mexico border—where there has been a surge in fentanyl seizures—and Senate Republicans quickly tanked the legislation while admitting they were doing so for political reasons.
But Budd said his North Carolina constituents are “furious” with Schumer over the ZYN comments. “They believe he’s out of touch,” Budd said.
The GOP’s myopic focus on ZYN reflects a political reality. While Congress hasn’t accomplished much since Republicans took back the House 13 months ago, there isn’t all that much for Republicans to run on and complain about in the 2024 election. The economy, as Americans are increasingly realizing, has been persistently good. And while there are plenty of complaints about border security, it’s Republicans who are standing in the way of action, for nakedly political reasons.
Enter a culture war issue like ZYN. And Republicans think, while it’s a seemingly small issue, it matters a great deal to some voters.
The head of the Senate GOP’s campaign effort, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), told The Daily Beast that Schumer’s ZYN comments are “not playing real well back home.”
“The federal government taking away from their daily routine? Good luck with that,” Daines said with a chuckle.
For Daines, the government simply shouldn’t get involved in the nicotine pouches—end of conversation. Asked if there is any room for increased oversight or regulation of ZYN, he had a definitive answer. “No,” he said.
Republicans have also long leaned on that argument that the federal government has better things to do than worry about tobacco products. Over a decade ago, when a Democrat complained about Hudson using chewing tobacco during committee hearings, Hudson told Roll Call that Capitol Hill’s anti-tobacco crusaders should “save their outrage” to tackle the debt crisis and lower standards of living.
Plenty of lawmakers—perhaps most visibly Republicans—use tobacco products. Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) can be spotted smoking a cigar on his way into House votes, leaving it outside by the Capitol steps and returning to it as soon as votes end. The House Rules Committee meeting room—located across from the press gallery—usually reeks of cigar smoke due to Chairman Tom Cole’s predilection for tobacco.
Despite the use of these products on Capitol Hill, Congress has passed major bipartisan legislation regulating tobacco. In 2009, Congress passed the landmark Tobacco Control Act, giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products and restrict marketing to youth. In 2020, the House passed a bill to address youth vaping with wide bipartisan support.
When it comes to ZYN, however, Republicans have been vocal protectors. But Democrats aren’t entirely on the outside looking… ZYN.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA)—known for his own populist streak—said he disagrees with Schumer on the nicotine pouches. Like marijuana, which Fetterman has relentlessly advocated to legalize, he said the feds should just stay out the fight.
“I mean, we all pick our own kinds of hills to fight for. But a nicotine pouch would not be one of them,” he told The Daily Beast.
ZYN’s parent company, Philip Morris International, maintains that it fully meets and exceeds regulations. A spokesperson told The Daily Beast that their marketing practices “prohibit the use of social media influencers” and are focused on “preventing underage access.”
“ZYN is designed for adults aged 21 or older who are currently using nicotine products and wish to continue using nicotine,” a PMI spokesperson said in a statement. “For nearly a decade, ZYN has been responsibly marketed in the U.S., and its prevalence with former adult smokers today is consistent with declining U.S. smoking rates.”
Tillis said he’s been the model ZYN customer. A longtime tobacco-user, Tillis converted to ZYN, using the pouches for five years before finally quitting nicotine altogether. He told The Daily Beast that he’s encouraged friends to convert to ZYN.
“It just seems illogical to me that he would do that,” Tillis said of Schumer’s ZYN comments. “It’s much safer. It doesn’t have carcinogens for the products that people would likely go back to.”
Tillis wants to talk to Schumer about ZYN oversight. The North Carolinian is known for his rare willingness to work across the aisle, and said he isn’t ruling out all ZYN oversight or regulation. But, Tillis said, he also wants to make it easier for tobacco users to wean themselves off the known dangers of smoking or chewing tobacco.
The concern from ZYN skeptics is that it’s working the opposite way.
Instead of encouraging people to quit tobacco products, critics worry that ZYN is a gateway to harmful cigarettes and vapes. A 2023 study found that 1.5 percent of middle high school students had used nicotine pouches in the past 30 days.
Some conservative Republicans haven’t made up their minds on whether the federal government should engage on the issue. Conservative Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) said he would take a look at any legislation that hits the Senate floor.
“When it comes to that topic, everybody’s kind of full of the federal government trying to get in your business from so many different angles,” Braun told The Daily Beast.
“I’ve been a believer, though—that may be a little different than some Republicans—that you take care of yourself, you take care of your Mother Earth, and those are all things that you keep in mind,” he continued.
Other senators are staying out of the issue entirely—or simply know nothing about it. Asked about the ZYN nicotine pouches, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he had “no idea” what The Daily Beast was talking about.
When The Daily Beast asked the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee about ZYN, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) apparently thought this reporter was asking him about “sin.” (Another reporter at a different outlet later overheard Pallone discussing the confusing, who’s-on-first-esque interview with a staffer.)
It seems that plenty of lawmakers are either unfamiliar with the ZYN wars, or are just staying out of it—even those who are usually hasty culture warriors.
Conservative Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO)—who has branded himself as in-touch with the young, conservative, male wing of the GOP—told The Daily Beast he didn’t have a position.
“I haven’t heard much about it from people in Missouri,” Hawley said. “Doesn’t mean that it’s not an important issue, but I just need to educate myself a little bit more on it.”
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH)—another conservative senator unafraid to stoke a culture war—told Business Insider that he’s “plugged into a lot of weird right-wing subcultures,” but that ZYN isn’t one of them.
Although tobacco isn’t an ingredient in ZYN, the FDA considers the pouches a “tobacco product” and subjects the brand to corresponding regulatory standards. The FDA declined to comment on ZYN specifically, but the government agency told The Daily Beast that it “remains concerned about any tobacco product that may appeal to youth.”
While the FDA insists it is paying close attention to all tobacco products, some lawmakers agree with Schumer that the federal government should take greater action on ZYN.
“Certainly addictive substances need to have guardrails,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) told The Daily Beast, pointing to studies that warn of youth use of addictive substances.
“Most people support that process of looking at what are the appropriate corporate guardrails,” Hickenlooper said.
As for the “ZYNsurrection,” anti-tobacco leader Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told The Daily Beast he just doesn’t get it.
“I’m not sure of the motivation,” Blumenthal said. “I sued the big tobacco companies. I’ve had to take action against vaping. Nicotine is a really powerfully addictive drug, and once kids are addicted, the door is open to other even more harmful products.”