TCS Daily


Smoke Free Europe

By Helene Guldberg - February 7, 2003 12:00 AM

At a recent press conference in London - launching a report by scientists from the UK and the USA - the Welsh Member of Parliament Paul Flynn called for the UK government to back a bid to over-turn the EU ban on the sale of smokeless tobacco, such as Snus. Flynn said 'Tobacco is not the killer - smoking is. Nicotine is no more dangerous than caffeine. It's madness for us to continue to ban Snus when it could well be a major lifesaver and save the NHS a fortune.'

Flynn is supported by the director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Clive Bates, who argued that 'there is a convincing argument that smokeless tobacco can substitute for cigarettes and help people to quit smoking - doing them much less harm. Given that smoking is so addictive[..] we have to do more than simply offer the alternative of 'quit or
die'.'

Having grown up in Norway - where the use of Snus is prevalent amongst males of all generations - the only compelling argument I'd ever heard against Snus was an aesthetic one. The substance is inserted under the top (or at times bottom) lip giving it a rather odd, protruding look.

Given that the adverse health effects are clearly nowhere near those of cigarette smoking, I was surprised to learn that here in the UK, as well as in many other European countries, the sale of the product is banned.

My father recently gave up smoking after more then 40 years of puffing pipes and cigarettes. The only form of tobacco he now consumes is Snus. My brothers are also Snus users - much to my mother's disgust - but have not, unlike my sisters and myself, become regular smokers. As teenage girls we might have thought it was 'cool' to smoke cigarettes, but to walk around with a protruding upper lip was something we would never be seen dead doing. Although, it has to be said, things are changing: on more recent visits to my homeland I have come across more and more young women taking Snus.

But the aesthetic case is not the only one against Snus. Some, but by no means all, studies do suggest a link between Snus and oral cancer. Other studies point to the relative health benefits of smokeless tobacco.

Sweden has the lowest male rate of lung cancer in the EU, and the lowest risk of dying from a smoking-related diseases. At the same time Swedish males have the lowest per capita consumption of cigarettes in Europe and the highest per capita consumption of smokeless tobacco - having negotiated a special exemption from the ban when Sweden joined the EU. The lung cancer death rate for Swedish females is however comparable with the rest of Europe. And few Swedish women use Snus.

These figures demonstrate what most of us already accept: that there is a link between smoking and cancer rates. Epidemiological studies may also suggest that Swedish males smoke far less than other Europeans due to the consumption of Snus. But, then again, one cannot dismiss theories that falling rates of smoking are due to other, possibly multifarious, factors.

There clearly is an argument for lifting the ban on Snus - on the basis of allowing people to make their own choices. Even if it was proven to have deleterious health effects, people should have the right to use Snus if they so wish.

Flynn, Bates, and the many scientists who support the campaign to lift the EU ban on Snus, would like to see other European countries emulate Scandinavia in moving away from cigarette-smoking to using smokeless tobacco. Of course the ban on the products is a major barrier. But surely the lifting of the ban is only one piece in a rather large jigsaw puzzle?

Snus has a long history in Scandinavian countries. Granted, until a few decades ago it was mainly used by miners and fishermen. But the growth of the Snus market has been long and protracted. Ban or no ban there is, at present, no real market for the product in other European countries.

Scandinavians are known among my friends and acquaintances for our rather strange and eccentric tastes - not least in our love of spicy, salty and sour liquorice and 'sweets'. Not many of our treasured delicacies have taken off around the world. If Snus was to become a big hit, it would surely be the first.

Dr. Helene Guldberg is managing editor of spiked.
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