A container of the Nicotine sachets known as LYFT which was banned by the Health Ministry on October 7, 2020.

| File | Nation Media Group

Are the regulators napping? Kenya caught in nicotine pouches storm

When President Uhuru Kenyatta announced a 21-day lockdown in Nairobi and three coastal counties to curb the spread of Covid-19 early last year, tobacco was included in the list of essential products that would have to be supplied even during the lockdown.

The list, prepared by the Ministry of Industrialisation’s Business Emergency Response Centre, placed tobacco after tea and coffee in the list, drawing sharp criticism from anti-tobacco lobbyists.

The products had been identified as “essential to sustenance of lives” and their manufacturing was to remain operational throughout the crisis period. Workers and providers of logistics for the products got special permits to move them during lockdown.

Ironical as it may have sounded — since smoking is, among other numerous health risks, associated with lung damage and increase in the risk of death in case of a Covid-19 attack — the noise from lobby groups fell on deaf ears. And that, somehow, set the stage for a very interesting relationship between Kenya and tobacco.

Controversial nicotine product

At the time, British American Tobacco (BAT), the biggest player in the Kenyan market, was months into marketing a controversial nicotine product that it said was meant to help those who want to quit smoking, but which analysts pointed out could recruit more smokers, including the underage.

But the nicotine pouch from BAT, branded Lyft, and which the Ministry of Health later claimed had been irregularly sneaked into the Kenyan market, is not the only one playing in the “safe nicotine delivery” space, according to an investigation by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has detailed similar patterns in other parts of the world.

The scheme is widespread and involves extensive marketing campaigns. Should the claims that these new nicotine brands are actually not safe — and that they could be used by tobacco firms to recruit young smokers — be proven, they could put BAT, which has been planning a Sh2.5 billion factory to manufacture the product, in the eye of a storm.

Kenya, which is a party to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) that calls for demand reduction measures concerning tobacco dependence and cessation, protested about the product in September 2020, with Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe blaming the Pharmacy and Poisons Board for approving the product illegally.


Paid promotion by Kenyan influencers gave the Lyft brand a glamorous, aspirational appeal.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Loud silence

Then all went quiet.

It is now months of loud silence since Mr Kagwe fired his protest letter. Officials from the ministry and the Tobacco Control Board (TCB), speaking on condition of anonymity to the Nation for fear of victimisation, said it appeared that intense lobbying from tobacco manufacturers was slowing down the regulator’s momentum.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to our questions on the matter. We will, as a matter of public interest, publish its responses should they come.

However, a senior official at the ministry’s tobacco control division, who spoke in confidence, said the matter had become too hot for anyone to comment on.

“It is a matter of public health concern and we had an issue with Lyft due to its nicotine content, which we gathered was up to 20 milligrams, higher than in some cigarettes. Tobacco addicts should get nicotine doses in reduced quantities, which we call tapering, until they can do without the drug,” he said.

Sold to youth

The ministry, according to the senior official, had found through market surveillance that instead of the product being sold to smokers, new entrants, including the youth, were fast being introduced to it in supermarkets, at filling stations and from vending machines in high-end malls where proof-of-age restrictions rarely apply during purchases.

Such users, according to the health expert, could eventually desire more nicotine and switch to smoking in the event they do not get their regular fix.

“The industry said the product was meant to help smokers quit but then marketed it to non-smokers,” the official argued.

BAT this week denied targeting underage users in its campaigns. Ms Caroline Mavuti, the firm’s head of corporate affairs, said Lyft is not even designed to appeal to the youth, and that the company has strict underage access prevention measures in place, including ID policies and age warnings at points of sale.

“Given the uncertainty occasioned by last year’s letter from the ministry, there is a need for clarity on the likely medium-term classification of the product and regulation of the category before BAT can be in a position to proceed further with our planned USD25 million (Sh2.5 billion) investment. As a result, and to facilitate the relevant discussions — including in respect of our enhanced under-18 prevention measures — we have ceased the supply of Lyft in Kenya pending resolution of these matters,” Ms Mavuti told the Nation.

Tobacco Control Alliance Chairperson Joel Shunza, who has been vocal about the ministry’s increased dalliance with tobacco manufacturers, fears that Lyft is being prepared for a comeback through alternative legal channels.

“They might be looking for a way to legalise it by maybe allowing it to circulate under different regulations,” Mr Shunza said

Kenya is not the only market where tobacco manufacturers are accused of luring the youth into nicotine addiction through such schemes.

Heated tobacco

Last year, BAT sponsored a concert by the Spanish boyband Dvicio in Madrid where influencers were hired to promote Glo, a heated tobacco product also marketed as an alternative to cigarette alternatives. Glo is part of the latest salvo of “next-generation products” launched to diversify away from cigarettes and — experts fear — addict the next generation to nicotine or tobacco.

Although BAT has told regulators around the world that its new products, including heated tobacco and oral nicotine, are for current adult smokers, its marketing approaches have the effect of encouraging young people to pick up a potentially deadly tobacco habit that still kills eight million people a year according to WHO, notwithstanding long-established rules aimed at preventing this.

The London journalists who were part of this reporting project found out that several of these tactics, employed in different countries around the world, have attracted a new generation, including non-smokers, to highly addictive nicotine and tobacco products.


These tactics include presenting nicotine products as cool and aspirational in a glossy youth-focused advertising campaign; paying social media influencers to promote e-cigarettes, nicotine pouches and tobacco on Instagram; and sponsoring music and sporting events, including an F1 e-sports tournament that was streamed live on YouTube and could be watched by children.

BAT’s own research shows that at least half of adult e-cigarette users and those using nicotine pouches were not using nicotine before. That is, they had never smoked.

In investor presentations, BAT has said it wants to increase the overall size of the “non-combustible products” targeting some 50 million more consumers by 2030, and in the process earn over Sh650 billion in revenues by the end of 2025.

Scientific evidence has demonstrated that nicotine is toxic to the developing adolescent brain. The company was forced to withdraw its nicotine pouches in Russia, where products made by other brands have been blamed for a number of teenage hospitalisations and linked to one death.

One 18-year-old Swede who spoke to the Bureau said half the girls in his class were using Lyft, which they found much more appealing than snus, a similar product made with tobacco.

“Lyft has got this super-cool, Södermalm-trendy, influencer-aura about it,” he said. “It’s become trendy to use Lyft. Old-man snus has that entire association with Norrland and EPA-tractors and not everyone wants to get on that train.”

Paul Lageweg, director of new categories at BAT, has boasted of the appeal of nicotine pouches among adult Gen Z and millennials (Gen Z refers to those born between 1997 and 2012). He identified Pakistan and Kenya as key trial markets, calling it BAT’s most exciting opportunity.


Kenya is not the only market where tobacco manufacturers are accused of luring the youth into nicotine addiction through such schemes.

Photo credit: Fotosearch

Given for free

In Pakistan, samples of BAT’s Velo nicotine pouches have been given away free as part of a large-scale campaign where young brand reps, working on commission, handed out samples at parties, shopping malls, tea shops, restaurants and tobacconists.

There are concerns that the brand has also actively encouraged non-nicotine users to take up Velo. One man in Pakistan told an official Velo social media account that he was using nicotine for the first time in the form of Velo. Velo responded by saying it was “so excited” and asked for feedback.

“Lit af,” the man responded.

BAT denies carrying out any inappropriate marketing activity in Pakistan.

One 17-year-old in Pakistan told the Bureau that they were offered a free sample without being asked for proof of age. A similar incident was recorded in the UK last October, when a 17-year-old in Bath was offered a free sample of BAT’s Vype e-cigarette without verifying their age or if they smoked. BAT said it hands free samples only to adult smokers.

“The tobacco industry has a very long and storied and horrible history of targeting young people,” said Taylor Billings, associate media director of the campaign group Corporate Accountability. “So to now all of a sudden think because they have a new marketing campaign they may not be using some of the same tactics they have used for the last 20 years is a bit naive.”

Digital age

The target may not have changed, but the tactics have been updated for the digital age.

In Pakistan, BAT turned to TikTok for its #OpenTheCan ad campaign for Velo. Elsewhere, the company used online influencers. Data analysis by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids shows that Facebook and Instagram posts from 40 influencers using Velo’s hashtags have been viewed 13.1 million times and have a potential audience of over 181 million.

As the pouches contain no tobacco, they escape regulation under most countries’ tobacco laws and advertising regulations. Facebook’s own rules specify that influencers cannot post branded content promoting tobacco and e-cigarette products across any of their platforms, although the Bureau still found dozens that had slipped through the cracks.

Paid promotion by Kenyan influencers gave the Lyft brand a glamorous, aspirational appeal. On Jumia, a shopping site popular with Kenya’s young middle class, BAT sold Lyft under the party category. Beside pictures posed on the tarmac, one influencer left the caption “Fast cars and kaftan dreams … #LYFTxMcLaren.” It was a nod to another marketing tactic updated for BAT’s new products — F1 sponsorship.

Tobacco advertising on F1 cars has been prohibited for more than a decade, but BAT and Philip Morris International  — Ferrari’s sponsor — technically follow the rules by promoting their nicotine brands or slogans instead.

BAT returned to F1 in 2019 for the first time since the ban was introduced in 2006, having previously funded the team British American Racing. The company’s new McLaren sponsorship deal includes Vuse e-cigarette and Velo nicotine pouch branding on drivers’ uniforms and “highly visible” locations on the McLaren cars, alongside its trademark.

More profitable

Thanks to tax breaks, the new products are also more profitable: BAT’s gross margins on Glo heated tobacco and Velo nicotine pouches are 78 per cent and 70 per cent, respectively, compared with 67 per cent for cigarettes.

Across the globe, regulators have struggled to keep pace with the explosion of alternative nicotine products on the market. Many health experts believe that stricter laws are necessary in order to prevent these products causing a net harm to public health.

Cigarettes kill about 15 people every minute; and it is not hard to see why a less deadly alternative appeals to Big Tobacco. But former smokers still represent a dwindling market.  In Kenya, the tobacco control lobby group has pointed to various dalliance between BAT and the government, including tree planting collaborations and a recent Sh10 million donation as Covid-19 emergency fund to the government.

The WHO convention which Kenya ratified and domesticated through the Tobacco Control Act in 2007 also prohibits the tobacco industry from participating in corporate social responsibility activities.

Kenya also faced a fierce court contest before it gazetted tobacco control regulations meant to strengthen and provide a framework in which the Tobacco Control Act could be effectively implemented, with BAT challenging the regulations up to the Supreme Court.

Additional reporting by Ann Törnkvist, Laura Margottini, Anmol Irfan, Umar Cheema — Bureau of Investigative Journalism.