The Vanderburgh County sheriff has banned all nicotine products from the jail. Here's why.
EVANSVILLE — More than 25 years ago, then-Vanderburgh County Sheriff Ray Hamner banned tobacco products from the jail after studies published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proved second-hand smoke caused cancer.
In the immediate aftermath, those incarcerated at the jail had access to popcorn and carrot sticks as a substitute, according to a 1993 Courier & Press article, and the sheriff framed the ban as yet one more incentive for people to stay out of jail.
Starting in 2021, the Vanderburgh County jail brought nicotine back, but instead of smokes, people were able to buy oral nicotine pouches from the commissary. The small pouches were designed to be placed between the upper lip and gums, allowing nicotine to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
That short-lived experiment is now over, according to Vanderburgh County Sheriff Noah Robinson, who vowed to rid the jail of nicotine during his 2022 campaign for sheriff.
"We're talking about folks that struggle with addictive behaviors," Robinson told the Courier & Press. "We were just substituting another highly addictive substance for one they might have access to on the outside, illegal or otherwise."
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But there was another reason Robinson and Jail Commander David Guetling wanted to nix the nicotine program: People quickly discovered methods to abuse the oral nicotine pouches.
"They were finding new and creative ways to alter the product to be used in a manner which the manufacturer didn't intend," Robinson said. "Like placing them in water and super concentrating it and then inhaling the vapor, or cutting them open and inhaling the powder itself."
Nicotine (legally) reentered the jail after new classes of smokeless tobacco products hit the market, such as vaporizers and oral nicotine pouches. Robinson said the sheriff's office discussed experimenting with electronic cigarettes but determined the device's lithium-ion batteries could be dangerous if modified.
Some inmates altering Zyn nicotine pouches
The sheriff's office ultimately decided to introduce oral nicotine pouches sold under the brand name Zyn in late 2021. The company Swedish Match manufactures the pouches, but as of November, tobacco giant Phillip Morris International had a 93% stake in the firm.
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The company's marketing materials characterize Zyn as "a fresh way to enjoy nicotine," and Robinson said there was an "immediate" and "great reaction" from the jail's population when the product was introduced.
But things quickly took a turn.
"We are consistently on almost a daily basis, weekly basis, finding different ways that they are abusing them," Guetling said. "When we really made the push to get Zyn out of the jail, it was because we were responding to so many instances of abuse where we were seeing large amounts of it inhaled or snorted."
Misuse of the product was causing "reactions" in people that Guetling compared to withdrawal symptoms typically associated with narcotic drugs.
"We kind of deemed these large doses and using the product in an unsafe and inappropriate manner was leading to possible health issues for the inmate population," Guetling said.
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In some jails, inmates rolling nicotine patches and smoking them
There are reports from jails around the world of problems cropping up when smokeless nicotine products find their way into a penitentiary setting. In Canada, the CBC reported that some incarcerated people had taken to rolling up nicotine patches and smoking them, which carried a risk of causing a nicotine overdose.
A similar phenomenon hit the British penal system after it banned tobacco in 2018 (tobacco had long been a staple in British prisons). Vice News reported inmates began using kettles to steam the nicotine off of a patch before mixing it with chamomile tea and rolling the substance into a makeshift cigarette.
Swedish Match spokesman Patrik Hildingsson did not return a request for comment from the Courier & Press about the use, sale and abuse of Zyn pouches in U.S. jails and prisons.
The product's website says Zyn pouches contain pharmaceutical-grade, salt-based nicotine and are not meant to be opened or otherwise tampered with.
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According to Robinson, Zyn is being phased out of the Vanderburgh County jail. The commissary stopped selling Zyn in early January, but people who still had the pouches were allowed to keep them until they ran out.
Guetling said some inmates were upset by the decision to get rid of Zyn, but overall, the process hasn't proven "too difficult." He said confinement officers back the change.
Robinson ruled out, at least for now, the reintroduction of any nicotine products even if they are designed to aid people in quitting smoking. The potential for misuse, abuse and addiction is too high, he said.
"It's my goal that the individual who is booked into the jail, that we're doing everything within our power to leave them better off than we found them," Robinson said. "(Selling nicotine) just stood in direct contrast to that mission statement."
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This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Sheriff Noah Robinson ceases sale of nicotine inside jail