EU threatens Swedish snuff once again
A draft revision of the EU tobacco directive, leaked last week, calls for a ban on several ingredients, such as vanilla, cocoa and caramel, in all tobacco products. These ingredients are common in Swedish snus, a smokeless oral tobacco often used by smokers to kick the cigarette habit. Industry executives, say a ban on these ingredients would destroy the Swedish snus market.
More than a million Scandinavians get their nicotine kick from a moist tobacco called snus, or snuff, that commonly comes in a small pouch users insert under their upper lip. But when travelling in the EU, snus users have to bring their own supply as snus is banned everywhere in the EU except for Sweden.
EU Parliamentarian Christofer Fjellner, a politician with the Moderate Party, says snus has always been a heated issue when it comes to the EU.
“One of the most important things for the Swedish Government to negotiate before joining the EU was to get an exemption from that ban to save snus. I remember bumper stickers on cars that said I would be happy to vote for the EU but not if you take my snus away,” says Fjellner.
Sweden succeeded in getting a permanent exemption written into its Accession Treaty when it joined the EU in 1995, but now snus is under threat again. A draft proposal for a revision of the EU tobacco directive, leaked last week, calls for a ban on several ingredients, such as vanilla, cocoa and caramel, in all tobacco products. These ingredients are commonly used in Swedish snus, and Lars-Erik Rutqvist, a science spokesperson for Swedish Match, the largest snus manufacturer in Sweden, says a ban on these ingredients would destroy the snus market in Sweden.
“If these rules were to pass it would no longer be possible to manufacture Swedish snus the way it has for more than 200 years. It would be a significant blow to the industry definitely and to the more than one million snus users in Scandinavia,” says Rutqvist.
While the Swedish Government still lobbies the EU to lift the ban on snus in the rest of Europe, there are many who say these ingredients are designed to make the product more appealing, especially to young people, including Barbro Westerholm, a Liberal Party parliamentarian.
“I don’t think they are right. All these additional things like vanilla and chocolate, they are meant actually to make it more tasty for young people. What we should do is prevent young people from starting to use tobacco altogether whether it’s in snus or whether it’s cigarettes,” says Westerholm.
About 210 million cans of snus were sold in Sweden in 2011, and while the EU ban was introduced in part because snus was believed to be a gateway to smoking for adolescents, research conducted in Scandinavia over the past 25 years shows a very different picture, says Rutqvist. Instead of snus being a gateway to smoking, he says the "Swedish experience" is that people, especially men, use snus to quit the cigarette habit. In the 1970s almost 50 percent of men smoked, compared with 11 percent today.
“There is overwhelming epidemiologic evidence both from Sweden and Norway showing that many smokers use snus as a way to give up cigarettes,” says Rutqvist, who also has a background as a cancer researcher at the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute.
“There are several hundred thousands of ex-smokers who have made that journey, including myself, so there is no doubt in my mind that Swedish snus has contributed to the internationally record low rates of smoking among Swedish males,” says Rutqvist.
While most people who quit cigarettes do so cold turkey, many people stop with nicotine replacement aides, such as nicotine patches, sprays or chewing gum sold in pharmacies. Snus is the most frequently cited aide among to quit smoking in Sweden.
The nicotine replacement therapy industry is so big that tobacco companies are getting in on the act. In fact, one of the products sold in Swedish pharmacies to help people quit smoking is owned by an American tobacco company.
Researchers continue to look for a correlation between snus and cancer. According to the Swedish Cancer Foundation, a definitive link has not yet been found, although there are indications of a possible correlation between snus and certain types of cancer, such as cancer of the pancreas.
Fjellner agrees that striving for a completely tobacco free world is a good thing. But in the meantime, he says, the relative health wins from snus should not be ignored.
“We can’t let that ambition stand in the way of doing important health benefits. If the rest of Europe were to do substitute cigarettes with snus the way we have done in Sweden, we would have 200,000 fewer cancer cases in Europe every year,” says Fjellner.