Sweden is poised to become Europe’s first smoke-free country largely thanks to the popularity of snus, a kind of moist snuff which is placed under the upper lip. But some are worried the tobacco industry is peddling a “fairytale” that is too good to be true.
Used by one in seven Swedes, snus has, according to the government, helped slash the number of smokers from 15 percent of the population in 2005 to 5.2 percent last year, a record low in Europe.
A country is considered smoke-free when less than five percent of its population are daily smokers.
Snus has been banned in the European Union since 1992. But Sweden negotiated an exemption when it joined the bloc three years later.
At the Swedish Match factory in the western city of Gothenburg, thousands of doses of snus wend their way through a complex web of machinery producing the sachets.
The company sold 277 million boxes of snus in Sweden and Norway in 2021.
“We have used it for 200 years in Sweden. (It’s) part of the Swedish culture, just like many other European countries have their wine culture,” Swedish Match spokesman Patrik Hildingsson told AFP.
Clad in a white lab coat, he described the manufacturing process.
“Tobacco comes from India or the United States. It goes through this silo and is then packed inside the pouches like tea bags and then into these boxes.”
There are two types: traditional brown snus, which contains tobacco, and white snus, which is made of synthetic nicotine and often flavoured.
Conquering the young
Traditional snus is mostly sold in Sweden, Norway and the US.
White snus, introduced about 15 years ago, falls into a legal void in the EU since it doesn’t contain tobacco. It was banned this year in both Belgium and the Netherlands.
But it is hugely popular with young people in Sweden, with its use quadrupling among women aged 16 to 29 in four years.
Fifteen percent of people in Sweden say they use some form of snus daily, a figure that has risen slightly in recent years.
At the same time, the country has seen a sharp drop in smokers even though cigarettes are less than half the price they are in Ireland.
Just five percent of Swedes say they smoke regularly, according to 2022 data from the Public Health Agency, putting Sweden 27 years ahead of the EU’s 2050 smoke-free target.
“It’s very positive,” Swedish Health Minister Jakob Forssmed told AFP.
“A very important decision was the smoking ban in restaurants from 2005, and then at outdoor restaurants and public places in 2019,” he said.
“Many Swedes also say that switching to snus helped them stop smoking.”
The government has also backed the snus industry, hiking taxes recently on cigarettes by nine percent while cutting those on traditional snus by 20 percent.
“With all these regulations it’s almost impossible to smoke. Snus doesn’t smell, and the nicotine rush is much stronger than with a cigarette,” said Thorbjorn Thoors, a 67-year-old window repairman who has used snus since his teens and quit smoking decades ago.
Linked to cancer?
But the decision to lower taxes on snus does not sit well with Ulrika Arehed Kagstrom, head of the Swedish Cancer Society.
“It came as a complete surprise and I was really disappointed,” she said.
“It shows that they really completely bought the fairytale from the tobacco industry, (which is) trying to find a new market for these products and saying that these are harm reduction products.
“We don’t have enough research yet,” she insisted.
“We know that snus and these kinds of nicotine products cause changes in your blood pressure and there is a risk of long-term cardiovascular disease.”
Arehed Kagstrom fears that just like with smoking it will take years to show “to what extent these products were harmful”.
A June 2023 study by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health showed that the risk of throat and pancreatic cancer was three and two times greater, respectively, among frequent snus users.
However, in 2017, a study in the International Journal of Cance concluded there was no link between cancer and snus.
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