Sweden’s snus EU future still uncertain amid tobacco directive evaluation

Sweden’s snus EU future still uncertain amid tobacco directive evaluation

The future of Sweden’s snus, a moist oral tobacco product currently banned in the EU, will be decided based on the ongoing evaluation of the tobacco directive, a European Commission spokesperson told Euractiv.

Snus has been banned in the EU since 1992 but is still used in Sweden and in non-EU countries, including Switzerland and Norway.

“Sweden negotiated an exemption to the ban under its accession negotiations, provided that the product is not sold outside Sweden,” a European Commission spokesperson said.

Snus originated in Sweden in the 18th century and is considered one of the first novel tobacco products. Centuries later, other products, including heated tobacco, electronic cigarettes or nicotine pouches, emerged as alternatives to smoking and found their place in the EU tobacco directive.

Asked if this could also be the case for snus, the Commission official said, “We are currently evaluating the legislative framework for tobacco control, which includes the Tobacco Products Directive 2014/40/EU, the Tobacco Advertising Directive 2003/33/EC and other related tobacco control policies across the EU. The next steps regarding the Tobacco Products Directive will be decided based on the results of the evaluation”.

The EU aims to have a ‘Tobacco-free Generation’ by 2040 in its Beating Cancer Plan. Tobacco is known as “the single largest avoidable health risk in the EU”, with 27% of all cancers attributed to its use.

In 2023, Sweden will likely become the first EU country to create a “smoke-free” generation, as smoking rates are expected to fall below 5%.

Not a ‘national secret’ anymore

Patrik Strömer, secretary-general of the Swedish Snus Manufacturers’ Association, told Euractiv that a “unique situation” has been created after the EU ban, which helps compare public health data.

“The numbers are extremely beneficial for the snus country regarding several smoking-related diseases”, he said.

He also attributed the EU snus ban “mainly on lack of knowledge”.

“It was something exotic or a novelty, and with no tradition within the member countries at that time, it was easier to ban the product than to learn more. There is the argument that “we don’t want more products like this”, in effect leaving 80 million smokers with no other option than to quit or die, but it is hard to admit that you’ve been doing the wrong thing for decades”, he noted.

Currently, the traditional snus is mainly manufactured by the five largest producers.

But, according to Strömer, there is also a growing hobby of making snus at home, several thousand people make their own these days.

“These people are not companies, and it is perfectly legal in Sweden to produce snus for your needs. Some minor companies have also entered the market in the last couple of years, with niche products and within a more premium price range”.

The special excise tax on snus and nicotine pouches boosts the state budget with roughly €300 million annually, while the Swedish government has also planned to cut the tax on traditional snus in 2024, Strömer added.

“I guess Swedes are starting to become proud of the long tradition of snus and also become more knowledgeable about the fact that Sweden has by far the lowest smoking prevalence in the EU. But with 80 million smokers in the EU and 1.2 billion smokers worldwide, we cannot keep this tradition a national secret anymore”, he said.

Karl Fagerström, associate professor and researcher on tobacco and nicotine, finds it “strange” that using the same data, the US health authorities have acknowledged snus as less harmful and have allowed it in the market, while the EU has banned it.

“I think it’s very emotional. There was a ban long ago, almost 30 years ago. And I guess it’s a lot of psychology here. Also, if you unban something, you admit that you have been wrong”, he said.

Conflicting data but clear case law

Dr Fagerström referred to WHO data showing, according to him, that Swedish men have the lowest smoking-attributable death in the EU.

“The Swedish tobacco-attributable death is 40% lower than the average in the EU”, he said.

Referring to global risk factors, he noted that no excess deaths can be attributed to Swedish snus either.

In 2018, data showed Sweden had the lowest lung cancer rate – smoking’s number one risk factor – in the EU.

But Italian MEP Alessandra Moretti (S&D) referred to studies showing that snus is related to other diseases.

“Snus probably does not cause lung cancer but is related to many other diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and other cancers of the digestive system,” she told Euractiv Italy in late 2022.

“To decrease the number of smokers, we must not condemn them to another addiction,” she added.

For his part, Dr Fagerström refuses this argument, saying oral cancer rates are natural in Sweden or even “very low in Sweden compared to other countries”.

“Again, this is because smoking is a risk factor for oral cancers. Swedish snus seems not to be”, he said.  “Then another thing that should be avoided is using snus during pregnancy. Like with any drug use, nicotine should not be used in pregnancy either”, he said.

While data seems conflicted on the matter, the EU Court of Justice clearly ruled that“tobacco products for oral use remain harmful to health, are addictive and are attractive to young people”.

“By reason of both the considerable potential for growth in the market […] and the introduction of smoke-free environments, those products are especially liable to encourage people who are not yet consumers of tobacco products, in particular young people, to become consumers […] because of the fact that their consumption is hardly noticeable”.

For their part, snus advocates insist that young people in Sweden may start with snus but not switch to smoking at a later stage, which is verified by declining smoking rates.

Source: Euractiv