Why Was Everybody Popping ZYNs This Year?

Those little pouches were the surprise nicotine hit of 2023.
zyn nicotine pouches tobacco alternatives
Collage by Natalie Moreno
Looking back on the biggest stories of the year.

Most younger users of nicotine pouches like ZYN already smoke cigarettes, according to a recent study. But I can’t tell you how many non-smokers I talked to in 2023 who’d just tried it for the first time. Most were guys I know from the internet: There’s a direct connection between the amount of time a person spends indoors and their desire for smoke-free stimulants. And their reports of their first encounters were uniform: “That was a lot.” 


ZYN is smokeless and odorless: It’s a small pouch containing nicotine salts extracted from tobacco leaves, flavoring, and sweeteners. The common gas station ZYN contains 6 mg of nicotine, and placing it between your upper lip and gums for about a half-hour lets your body absorb considerably more nicotine than you would with a single cigarette for about one-third the cost. (The milder 3 mg size, and competing nicotine pouches in 2 mg, can be harder to find.)

For most first-timers, there was some tingling lightheadedness. Some upset stomachs. Seeing stars and having to sit down. Amid the mildly unpleasant shock, I don’t think there were too many moments of great energetic clarity—even if a positive brain-altering effect is why ZYN has been shilled, lately, by that particular and particularly post-COVID type of man with a computer job and an affinity for bro science.

Like smoking, ZYN can at once feel countercultural and comically corporate. Philip Morris International bought Swedish Match, the creator of ZYN, for $16 billion in 2022, and nicotine pouches are a central component of the company’s plan for sales to be majority smokeless by 2025. Surely, their massive Big Tobacco distribution network has helped ZYN become such a thing, but the product’s seeming everywhereness in regular life is hardly due to their marketing department. I’ve seen cardboard signs in gas stations, but—thanks to regulations on advertising nicotine—that’s it. Instead, ZYN feels like the latest step in a trend that’s been going on for at least a decade, and almost entirely online.


ZYN hit the market in 2014. A few years earlier, the popular, research-loving blogger Gwern wrote a big post about nicotine gum and patches as, essentially, not that addictive or bad for you. The article’s section on the benefits of nicotine use cites studies claiming it boosts attention, memory, reaction time, and performance while you’re sleep-deprived. In one passage that block-quotes from a 2004 New York Times article, an academic who studies patches and gums said, “People are unreasonably afraid of nicotine,” and The Times added, “In fact, carbon monoxide, tar and the countless toxic particles in cigarette smoke are what promote illness [not nicotine itself].” Even today, scientists still aren’t sure about the long-term effects of nicotine alone.

There are plenty of significant health reasons not to pop ZYNs, with an increased risk of heart disease probably chief among them, but that sort of risks/benefits analysis has been rattling around on the fringes of public consciousness for a decade now. You can see how it contributed to the rise of vaping before ZYN. (Let’s put aside, for a second, whatever weird chemicals and materials are involved in the manufacturing process of these things.)

Every once in a while, nicotine will have an odd media moment, like when nicotine gum aficionado Tucker Carlson declared that nicotine “frees your mind.” This summer, a New York Times trend piece about Hestia Cigarettes placed their “viral” cigs at a Celine fashion show, a cool lit mag reading, and a party for an aspiring crypto-city builder backed by Peter Thiel. Obviously, people have been smoking outside book readings forever, but it’s equally obvious that using nicotine has become some kind of new form of cultural signifier lately, too. Sometimes, that signifier feels vaguely right-wing-coded (Carlson, Thiel), but for something so widely used as nicotine pouches and smoking in general, it’s clearly not actually that: If anything, it’s edgy without being too edgy. 

For a lot of people, popping ZYNs in 2023 was a slightly more sensible summer of Four Loko. I know I did my share. But I should point out that I didn’t take any while writing this article. When I want a little boost like that, I’ve been doing snus instead. Snus is a lot harder to find where I live—it’s foreign and less popular. I’m just trying to stay ahead of the curve.