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Snus or Die

The European Union could save up to 200,000 lives a year by lifting its ban on most kinds of smokeless tobacco, including the Swedish variety known as snus. It is a form of moist ground tobacco that users place between their lip and gum. By doing so, they are able to fulfill their nicotine addiction because the nicotine is then absorbed into their blood stream.

Findings by Professor Brad Rodu from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Professor Michael Kunze from the University of Vienna reveal just how harmful the EU ban on smokeless tobacco is. There are as many tobacco users in Sweden as in the rest of Europe. However the consumption of smoking tobacco is far lower than in any other European country. According to Prof. Rodu this is because Swedes have access to healthier alternatives to smoking tobacco.

At a recent event hosted by the Copenhagen Institute Rodu and Kunze, who is a member of the EU Tobacco Expert Working Group, said that all the risks connected with smoking are either non-existent or are significantly reduced when using the smokeless alternatives. Smokeless tobacco is between 90 and 98 per cent less harmful than smoking tobacco since it carries no risks for lung cancer, emphysema or heart disease. In Sweden the instances of these illnesses are accordingly fewer thanks to the much healthier Swedish manner of consuming nicotine. Snus is the tobacco product of choice throughout the country. In fact, about half the males in Sweden are snus users. But because of the ban in other EU countries, use is minimal throughout the rest of the EU.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Times (November 13), Brad Rodu and Jeff Stier criticize the American television network ABC for not telling the whole truth in its effort to educate the public about the dangers of cigarette smoking and about ways to quit, ABC correctly “portrays nicotine as powerfully addictive,” they write: “ABC’s Dr. Tim Johnson has it right: ‘there is no more addictive substance than nicotine. It is harder to take control over the nicotine addiction than to take control over heroin, cocaine or alcohol.’ What Dr. Johnson didn’t say is that nicotine does not cause cancer, or any other smoking-related illness. In fact, nicotine itself is no more dangerous than caffeine, another addictive drug consumed safely by millions of Americans” – and millions of Europeans.

European policy makers, too, wrongly believe that nicotine is the cause of cancer, when in fact it is the tobacco smoke that leads to cancer and other diseases. There are alternatives to smoking tobacco, such as nicotine gum and patches, or simply replacing cigarettes with less harmful, smoke-free forms of tobacco and nicotine, such as snus. Unfortunately, for European consumers (the Swedes excluded) the latter is not an alternative because of the EU’s policy to ban everything that is even slightly potentially harmful, including smokeless tobacco products.

It is also worth noting that lifting the ban on smokeless tobacco would lead to less “passive smoking” (through inhaling other people’s tobacco fumes). It would render it unnecessary to ban the consumption of nicotine altogether, because restaurants and other places where passive smoking takes place, can enforce their own private policy of alternative nicotine consumption, whether it be patches, smokeless tobacco or something else.

In Sweden the popularity of smokeless tobacco is mainly a male phenomenon. However Rodu has observed that newer and more sophisticated smokeless tobacco-brands are making women change their smoking habits, too. He also sees the same changes in the patterns of nicotine consumption in the US - where the law and industry leave plenty of room for less lethal alternatives to the burning and inhaling of nicotine.

Kunze feels that the moral responsibilities as well as the legal implications of the EU ban ought to be discussed. “The heart of the matter is that the EU ban is keeping the consumer from receiving the nicotine in the least harmful way,” he says. He deems it likely that some day in the near future someone suffering from a smoking-related disease but who has been legally kept from healthier alternatives to smoking tobacco, will be taking EU authorities to court.