Snuff is not to be sniffed at

Tue, Apr 21, 2009, 01:00

Banned by the World Health Organisation since 1992, the use of snuff is fast becoming a smoking gun at European level, writes ISABEL CONWAY.

‘OUR BANK manager looked like he had just come back from a bad session at the dentist or walked into a door and banged his bulging upper lip, but luckily we never asked him what had happened,” says Julie van Tongeren, recalling her first encounter with a ‘snus fix’.

Snuff-taking is a popular and uniquely Nordic habit. The next time they met, the bank manager’s upper lip had shrunk back to normal size and “that odd distortion that we couldn’t take our eyes off was gone”.

A bulge above the upper lip is inevitable but users, who insert (sometimes furtively) the snuff between their upper lip and gum, do so believing they are using a tobacco product which is at least 90 per cent less hazardous than cigarette smoking. The European Union banned its sale in 1992 following a WHO study, but the committee on tobacco had acknowledged that evidence was inconclusive regarding health consequences for snus consumers.

With European Parliamentary elections looming soon and Sweden preparing to take over the EU presidency this summer, what was recently considered a storm in a snus box is fast becoming a smoking gun with politicians deeply divided on whether snus deserves to be made an election issue or not.

Sweden’s trade minister Ewa Bjorling fired the first shots, calling on Brussels to lift the EU ban on exports of Swedish moist snuff, describing the prohibition as discriminatory.

EU internal markets commissioner Charlie McCreevy has also experienced her wrath amid claims that the prohibition amounts to banning the export of French wine or Danish meat.

But Swedish candidate for the Christian Democrats in the forthcoming European elections, Ella Bohlin, has now taken her to task, arguing that there is no demand for legalising snus from other EU member states. She says Sweden should concern itself with more pressing export issues.

A rival European parliamentary candidate, Anders Edberg of the Folkpartiet, has turned snus and its legalisation abroad into an election pledge, saying there is no evidence that it is harmful to people’s health.

An alliance of researchers and anti-tobacco activists recently suggested that forms of snuff – including snus – might help people to quit smoking, stressing, nevertheless, that no form of smokeless tobacco was completely harmless.

Snus was deemed less harmful than others, an argument the Swedes highlight, but one that has cut no ice so far with the European Commission whose rules continue to ban it everywhere within the EU, except Sweden. The banning of snus even ended up before the European Court of Justice which was asked to rule on whether the ban violated European law.

The Baltic Sea island of Aland between Sweden and Finland, much of whose revenue had come from sales of snus on duty-free ferry cruises, even threatened to secede from the European Union on the issue.

Aland is technically part of Finland, though they consider themselves more Swedish, and with internal self-governance Aland wanted to maintain its traditional right to possess and sell snus. There was fury when the Court of Justice ruled that the ban was consistent with EU law and could remain in place.

The European Union has been urged to revamp its ban on the sale of smokeless tobacco products and Sweden is leading the call. Experts disagree on the seriousness of any side-effects which are, at best, discoloured teeth and swollen upper lips. Far more serious longer-term health risks are feared by some.

Research has shown that snus is at least 50 per cent less likely to lead to heart disease than cigarettes and unlikely to lead to lung cancer, according to an EU committee report. With a 16 per cent smoking rate, Sweden has the lowest percentage of people consuming cigarettes in Western Europe, according to WHO statistics.

The hunt for new markets has led Sweden’s biggest producer, Swedish Match, to entice more women to try what was traditionally a ‘manly product’.

Women who are about to kick smoking or have recently done so are far are more likely to try snus, research shows.

The fact that hair and clothing no longer smells of smoke is a plus and being very low in calories, snus is also popular with dieters who get their boost, but without indulging in sugar-laden snacks. The bulging upper lip, associated with use of traditionally hand rolled snus – was a big turn-off, considered especially unattractive by Swedish women, researchers learnt.

As more women, especially younger ones, were breaking into a smokeless bastion of male tobacco culture, Swedish Match decided to make the habit sexier and more discreet. The size of pouches was reduced to minimise the bulge behind the upper lip.

Pleasant new sweeter tastes, instead of the male favourites of smoky whiskey or strong liquorice, and eye-catching colourful packaging for snus boxes are now aimed at the female market.

That snus is addictive and may cause pancreatic cancer has done little to discourage use in a country where more than one million people regularly indulge their snuff habit.

“Just remember to brush your teeth a lot, otherwise you’ll look like an old hag,” points out one female user – advice you are not likely to see given on the small round snus containers which, in shape and appearance, are not unlike our old-fashioned tins of shoe polish.

Snus not harmless but may be less harmful than other products

Swedish snus, a semi-moist to moist oral tobacco product, dates back to the late 1700s.

Today sold mainly in Sweden and Norway, snus is made from air-dried tobacco and can be bought loose and rolled into a lump or pre-packaged in small bags made from the same material as tea bags.

Snus contains more nicotine than cigarettes but is not intended for inhalation so does not affect the lungs as cigarettes do. It is steam-cured so contains lower concentrations of nitrosamines and other carcinogens than other tobacco products.

To minimise the formation of nitrosamines, snus is stored in refrigerated cabinets at retail points – supermarkets, bars and neighbourhood shops.

Users push snus up behind the upper lip where it can be kept for up to an hour.

Traditionally favoured by Swedish blue-collar workers who got their nicotine buzz while keeping their hands free on the assembly line, it has come back into fashion since the ban on smoking, with a big increase recently in women users.

The European Union banned its sale after a WHO study concluded that oral use of snuffs was carcinogenic to humans.

Only Sweden (which insisted on an exemption as a condition of EU membership) and European Free Trade Association member Norway are exempt from the ban.

Snus may be less harmful than other tobacco products, some research suggests. But a study at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute suggested that users ran twice the risk of developing cancer of the pancreas.

Retailing in shops and supermarkets, the price for a 45g box in Sweden is between €3 and €5 and €7.50 in Norway where sales taxes are higher.

The legal age for purchase is 18.