BAT nicotine Velo pouches yet to comply with anti-tobacco laws

Monday April 24 2023
lyft pouch

A container of the Nicotine sachets known as LYFT which has been banned by Kenya’s Health Ministry on October 7, 2020 as the licensing of the product was in contradiction with the law. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG


The nicotine pouches sold by the Kenyan arm of the British American Tobacco (BAT) are raising eyebrows over their continued non-compliance with the laws regulating sale and promotion of tobacco and related products in the country.

The products sold under the Velo brand (formerly Lyft) have been gaining traction according to BAT, but their packaging does not fully disclose the health risks or effects associated with them as the law requires.

The Kenya Tobacco Control Act of 2007 – under which all tobacco products and the nicotine pouches are regulated – demands that the wrapping of these products should carry warning messages in both English and Kiswahili languages.

For smokeless tobacco products, it stipulates that such warning messages both in text and picture form should occupy at least 30 percent of the front cover and 50 percent of the back, but Velo products are yet to comply with this.

BAT says the nicotine pouches are ‘tobacco-free’, meaning they are made from lab-manufactured nicotine, which is not extracted from tobacco like traditional oral products.

Only one warning


The Velo products sold in Kenya have only one warning on the front cover: ‘This product contains nicotine. Nicotine is an addictive chemical’. However, health experts say that nicotine, natural or otherwise has more health dangers than addiction.

Lyft, a nicotine pouch brand that is being marketed locally.

Lyft nicotine product now rebranded as Velo. PHOTO | COURTESY

A 2015 study published by US-based National Centre for Biotechnology Information is one of the many research projects that have shown that despite being touted as a safer alternative of tobacco, nicotine is not entirely harmless for the human body.

“Nicotine poses several health hazards. There is an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory and gastrointestinal disorders. There is decreased immune response and it also poses ill impacts on the reproductive health,” says the study lead-authored by Indian Oncologist Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi.

“The use of nicotine needs regulation. The sale of nicotine should be under supervision of trained medical personnel,” Chaturvedi added.

The health concerns surrounding the farming and consumption of tobacco products has contributed to a significant drop in smoking.

For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in 2020 that the number of Kenyans smoking or using other tobacco products had dropped by 16 percent to 5.9 million since 2001.

Reducing tobacco-related deaths

Kenyan government and civil society organisations have also ramped up efforts to reduce tobacco-related deaths by encouraging tobacco farmers to switch to safer crops. The ‘Tobacco-free Farms Project’ in Kenya for example was started last year by WHO in partnership with the country’s government, the World Food Programme as well as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, to help farmers shift from hazardous tobacco-farming to other crops like maize and beans.

BAT has been looking to diversify its product line beyond cigarettes and has successfully added tobacco-heating products, traditional oral products (Grizzly), vapour products or electronic cigarettes and modern oral products such as Velo.

Sale of nicotine pouches in Kenya was stopped in 2019 after the country’s health ministry queried why they were regulated by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board and not the Tobacco Control Board under the Tobacco Act of 2007. Their sale was allowed in 2022 after consensus that they should be regulated by TCB, meaning that they are treated as tobacco products.

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BAT has invested $18.7 million (Ksh2.5 billion) building a manufacturing plant for nicotine pouches in Nairobi, with an eye on Comesa consumers.

Anti-tobacco lobbies want the Kenyan state to stop plans to produce nicotine pouches locally.

“By allowing continued sale of these harmful products, government is putting commercial interests before the health of Kenyans and that needs to stop,” said Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance Chairman Joel Gitali.

“BAT is clear that we sell all our products in adherence with the relevant local laws and regulations in the markets we operate. Whilst we are clear on the end goal, we are equally clear that transitioning from cigarettes cannot happen overnight. To accelerate this transformation requires the support of all stakeholders,” Achola said in response to our queries.  

The Tobacco Control Board did not respond to The EastAfrican’s queries on why this law has not been enforced on BAT, instead directing us to the Principal Secretary of medical services at the Ministry of Health, who also didn’t respond to our questions.

BAT acknowledged receipt of our questions about their compliance with the Kenyan Act but did not respond by the time of going to press.