Expert call on government to ban nicotine product, Lyft

Wednesday, August 19th, 2020 00:00 | By

By Rebecca Mutiso and Faith Kyomukama

Medical experts and anti-tobacco lobby groups are asking the government to ban Lyft, a nicotine product sold across the counter and which is being abused by the youth and children.

The product, introduced into the Kenyan market in July last year by tobacco firm British American Tobacco (BAT), has in the last few months been the subject of social media discussions because of its availability and addictive nature.

The nicotine pouch is meant to help people addicted to cigarettes to stop smoking, but those who have used it claim it gives users a “lift”.

Experts are now warning that Lyft is being abused by youth and children because it is cheap and available in kiosks and online shops.

It can be bought in chemists, supermarkets and from local shops for as little as Sh20.

Prof Wilfred Lessan, the chair of the Tobacco Control Board, says the product is a derivative of tobacco and is popular among the youth because it has been marketed as a “cool” product.

“There is a lot of misinformation going on about the product, with some people claiming it can help in weakening the Covid-19 virus.

This is misleading because it is harmful and a precursor to cancer. We are likely to see an upsurge of cancer of the tongue if this product is not regulated.

It has all the bad effects associated with tobacco but it has been made to look like a harmless product and is even sold in different flavours,” he said.

Youth attraction

However, BAT denied claims that their marketing strategy for Lyft is deliberately meant to attract the youth.

“BAT is clear that Lyft is designed for adult smokers only and no one under the age 18 should ever use Lyft.

In addition to complying with the law, our International Marketing Principles (IMP) provide detailed guidance on all aspects of the marketing of our new category products, which includes a responsibility and commitment to market them responsibly and only to adults,” said William Elliot, BAT Head of Legal and External Affairs in a statement.

He said the firm has a Youth Access Prevention programme to train retailers and trade partners on compliance with the applicable regulations and guidelines on the sale of the product.

He said their representatives conduct regular spot checks in facilities stocking Lyft to ensure they adhere to regulations so that the product does not get into the hands of those below 18 years.

Lessan said the board wrote to Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe in May this year urging him to ban the use of the substance in the country.

He claims “tricks” were used to register the drug as a pharmaceutical product that can treat cigarette addiction. The product is registered under the Poisons and Pharmacy Board (PPB).

“The Tobacco Control Board issues advisories on tobacco-related products sold in the market and we have already registered our protestations concerning this product.

We have already asked the ministry to degazette it. We haven’t made a follow-up because the outbreak of Covid-19 has slowed things down,” he said.

Elliot further said BAT has a Youth Access Prevention programme to train retailers and trade partners on compliance with the applicable regulations and guidelines on the sale of the product.

He said their representatives conduct regular spot checks in facilities stocking Lyft to ensure they adhere to regulations so that the product does not get into the hands of those below 18 years.

Elliot acknowledged that nicotine can be addictive, but said there are clear warnings and age restrictions on the product packaging.

He referred to a 2016 study by the UK Royal College of Physicians, titled Nicotine without smoking: Tobacco harm reduction, which showed that “if nicotine can be delivered effectively and acceptably to smokers with smoke, most if not all the harm of smoking could possibly be avoided”

“Globally, the available evidence does not support the existence of a youth access or ‘smoking gateway’ problem.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) review of snus (Swedish oral tobacco pouches that were the original inspiration for our zero-tobacco nicotine pouches), the “available evidence from epidemiological studies does not demonstrate significant youth initiation of snus products,” he said.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that nicotine is especially dangerous for teens whose brains are still developing.

WHO argues that exposure during adolescence can disrupt normal brain development and may have long-lasting effects such as increased impulsivity and mood disorders.

It can also cause miscarriage in pregnant women and sudden infant death syndrome.

An interview with people who have used the product revealed how an innocuous marketing strategy has seen many fall victim.

Imani Bett said her first encounter with Lyft was at a cocktail festival event in December last year.

“What got me sold was because the sales agent said it is a replacement of shisha.

I loved shisha and even though I use Lyft it doesn’t match up because it’s an instant high.

Usually, I buy it when I’m hosting parties because it makes people lively,” said Bett.

Thirty-year-old James Mulimu was introduced to Lyft by his friends at a local club in Westlands, Nairobi.

“I was jokingly told by a friend to get ‘lifted’ and I was up for it. At first I actually liked it, but after having three pouches I started feeling nauseated.

I know that it is very popular among young people,” he said.

Kathleen Francisca, 21, said the product is “one of those party must-haves”.

“It has a good high like shisha and the good thing is that it’s not visible, you can simply have it without getting funny stares unlike cigarettes or shisha,” she said.

Wines and spirits shop

Lyft can be purchased in wine and spirits shops, and can also be purchased on online sites.

In supermarkets, they are found in the alcohol sections, sold together with cigarettes. The price ranges between Sh200 and 250 per pack which contains 20 pouches.

Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca) chairman Joel Gitali said there should be cause for concern because the product is readily available to young people and is being sold on some of the major online shops as an accompaniment to alcohol.

“The product is ‘recruiting’ young people into drug use. It is unethical and immoral because it is marketed as safe but it’s harmful and addictive and goes against the Tobacco Control Act.

We have had several consultations with other players and we are of the opinion that it should be regulated.

We are having an online meeting next week with the technical working group on tobacco, in which the Ministry of Health is a member and we plan to raise our concerns about the product once again,” he said.

Yvonne Olando, a tobacco treatment specialist and a certified International Certified Addiction professional, said she is currently treating four people addicted to Lyft.

“They all started using it to get rid of their addiction to cigarettes. Friends suggested they use it because they could get it at their local kiosks.

They claim they get a high or steam similar to that people who use Kuber get.

One of them stopped using it after she became sick out of the usage. Others say they got a headache after using it and became very active and now they cannot stop using it. It is a highly addictive product,” she said.

Olando said the product is seen as a “classier” version of Kuber and is, therefore, popular among young people and the fact that it is sold as a prescription product makes it appear harmless.


Celine Awour, the acting Chief Executive of the International Institute for Legislative Affairs, said there is no conclusive evidence that nicotine is a healthier substitute for smoking.

“The problem with the product is that it is highly addictive and there is no clear regulatory system to ensure it is not abused.

It is very popular among young women. It is likely that those using it can graduate to other products such as Kuber, a stimulant,” she said.

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