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Jan 26, 2024, 12:39pm EST
politics

The online roots of the conservative ‘ZYNsurrection’

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks during a press conference on Jan. 23, 2024.
Getty Images/Samuel Corum
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The News

This was not Chuck Schumer’s first skirmish with nicotine. The Senate Majority Leader had stopped cigarettes from being shipped in the mail, expanded the FDA’s power to regulate tobacco, and warned that flavored e-cigarettes were being marketed to minors. On Wednesday, Schumer took aim at nicotine pouches, asking the FDA to investigate the popular brand ZYN.

“It comes in a whole lot of flavors,” Schumer explained. “Smooth, spearmint, citrus, cinnamon, chilled. It’s dangerous.”

Within hours, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called for a “ZYNsurrection.” North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson, who leads the House GOP’s campaign committee, posed with a ZYN pack and dared “big brother” to “come and take it,” interpolating an old Texas slogan; Georgia Rep. Mike Collins turned that into a meme. Florida Rep. Michael Waltz told Schumer to “close the border,” if he cared so much about young people; fentanyl was a threat, not nicotine salt in plant-based pouches, dissolving in users’ mouths.

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“If Sen. Schumer proceeds with this bad policy, voters will be mobilized, and there will be consequences,” said Tim Andrews, the director of consumer research at Americans for Tax Reform. ATR had tangled with Democrats over nicotine bans before; its advocacy for the vaping industry may have helped Republicans in 2016, and helped stall a proposed, Trump-era flavored vape rule.

“It shouldn’t be a political issue,” Andrews added, pointing out that Democratic Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman had pre-emptively opposed any ZYN restrictions.

Republicans are much more engaged in the issue now, attacking on two fronts: Health and culture. The Philip Morris-owned brand, they say, is a “life-saving” alternative to smoking, akin to nicotine gum, without the clear cancer risks of cigarettes. Schumer, wrote a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was “about to make a lot of people single issue Republican voters.”

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The culture war angle played out primarily in conservative media. Why would Schumer, or any Democrat, want to restrict access to nicotine? Why had they cracked down on menthols and piled on “sin taxes,” while supporting legal marijuana, an issue the Majority Leader has eagerly embraced? (Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

“They’re promoting weed to your children but they’re not letting you use tobacco or even non-tobacco nicotine delivery devices, which don’t cause cancer,” Tucker Carlson told viewers in a 2020 Fox News monologue. “Why do they hate nicotine? Because nicotine frees your mind, and THC makes you compliant and passive. That’s why.”



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David’s view

Democrats, who generally try to avoid conservative media influencers, might not have known how popular ZYN had become in that space. There, it’s seen not as a vice, but as a work-enhancer — addictive, but well worth the trade-off. It fits in with a broader class of medically questionable supplements, dietary fads, and brain-boosters that have become tightly associated with right-wing and wellness podcasts in recent years.

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“They fear a society when a man wakes up in the morning, drinks black coffee, pops a cool mint upper decky, and takes on the world,” said Greg Price, the communications director at the State Freedom Caucus Network. “A man with nicotine, protein, caffeine, and creatine coursing through his veins is an unstoppable force. Imagine if Joe Biden had a couple smooth sixes that he took every day. Maybe he’d know where to walk when he finished his speeches.”

ZYN is the dominant brand in the American nicotine pouch market, which moved hundreds of millions of units last year. It’s also Carlson’s choice, a fact that’s turned on more conservatives. The most influential right-wing pundit in America urged podcaster Theo Von to take ZYN (“once you try this, you’re going to get a lot richer”) and posed with the “world’s largest ZYN” after the Nelk Boys, popular prank YouTubers, lowered it from a helicopter.

“The volume of nicotine in here could save the world,” joked Carlson, who’s signed ZYN packs for fans.

This was the fandom Schumer tangled with on Wednesday — people who’ve kicked smoking by switching to pouches, and people who see dark motives in any nicotine crackdown. Progressives, said the Daily Wire podcaster Michael Knowles this week, “want to encourage people to be passive and lazy and dumb.” Demonizing or restricting access to nicotine, while supporting popular marijuana legalization measures, gave the game away.

“I’m not the prime minister of ZYNdia. I’m not even the mayor of ZYNcinatti,” Knowles told viewers on Wednesday. “But I’ve popped in a nice little lip pilly every now and again, and it’s amazing. I think that’s actually what neuralink will feel like — it feels like you’re just taking an electrical charge and plugging it into your brain stem.”

There is, of course, a class element to tobacco culture that also helps drive the current political arguments around policy. As president, Donald Trump faced an intense industry campaign to back off an announced crackdown on youth vaping that Republicans warned could alienate their newly expanded blue-collar base. That may have helped convince one FDA commissioner to resign (they denied it), and a limited ban on flavored vapes was announced later in Trump’s presidency that partially incorporated industry concerns. This month, a conservative group is experimenting with ads aimed at Black voters in South Carolina that tie Biden to a proposed menthol cigarette ban (which the White House notably delayed a decision on in December).

The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a question about Schumer’s rollout, but Grover Norquist, who mobilized vapers in Trump-era “vape the vote” campaigns, said that Democrats targeting ZYN would turn out voters who wanted to be left alone.

“I’ve been in states where the vapers are showing up to stop a bill, and it’s like the home schoolers showing up, in droves,” said Norquist. “I can’t do that with taxpayers.”

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The View From Philip Morris International

The conservative and Republican embrace of ZYN helped build instant opposition to Schumer, and the nicotine industry financially supports some conservative think tanks. But on the record, ZYN’s manufacturer isn’t courting this stuff.

“Our marketing practices — which prohibit the use of social media influencers — are focused on preventing underage access and set the benchmark for the industry,” the company said in a statement. “Real-world evidence shows this approach is working: the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA show oral nicotine pouch use by those under the legal age remains exceptionally low.”

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Notable

  • In the New York Times, Dani Blum talks to public health officials about the unknown risks of nicotine, which “aren’t yet clear. The pouches may contain other carcinogens.”
  • On Breaking Points, Ryan Grim and Saagar Enjeti wondered what exactly Schumer was doing with his press conference; “this idea that they’re being targeted towards children seems ridiculous to me,” said Enjeti.
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