STOCKHOLM - As countries across the EU curb smoking in public, Sweden is fighting to get a European-wide ban lifted on ‘snus,’ a moist tobacco popular across Scandinavia that is sucked rather than chewed or smoked.
The small, teabag-like pouches, also called moist snuff, are used by nearly one million Swedes. Placed under the user’s lip, they quickly deliver a nicotine rush to the blood and a strong salt and herbs flavor in the mouth.
While cigarette sales have tumbled by 50 percent in Sweden over the past 30 years, snus is on the up, with sales rising from some 2,500 tonnes a year in the 1970s to almost 7,500 tonnes in 2008.
That equals some 800 sachets a year for the average Swedish snus user.
It is also popular in other parts of the Nordic region.
In Norway, outside of the EU, some 400,000 people use it on a regular basis while 100,000 Finns have to travel to Sweden to stock up, official data shows.
Sweden is the only EU member state where sales are permitted after it obtained an exemption when the European Union banned snus in 1992.
With many member states also banning smoking in public places, tobacco industry giants are looking to tap into this potentially lucrative market.
Swedish Match, the number one snus manufacturer in the Nordic country, reported sales of 660 million euros (965 million dollars) in Sweden in 2008.
The snus ban could be set for review in 2010 and Swedish Match’s head of public affairs, Patrick Hildingsson, said that would provide “a window of opportunity” to make their case for legalization elsewhere.
In February, Philip Morris International set up a joint venture with Swedish Match and last year British American Tobacco snapped up Sweden’s second-biggest cigarette maker, Fiedler & Lundgren.
“We want to expand our business and it goes well along with the new smoking regulations,” explained Hildingsson.
While snus has started to be gradually rolled out in the United States, South Africa and Canada, the ban remains in place across Europe.
In its role at the helm of the EU presidency, Sweden is in prime position to make its case and Stockholm has intensified talks with the European Commission and other member states on the subject.
“As the presidency, you’re not supposed to put things on the agenda that can be seen as national priorities … But on the other hand, we cannot rule out that this issue will come up in some form during other discussions,” Swedish Trade Minister Ewa Bjoerling told AFP in a telephone interview.
She argued that other forms of “oral” tobacco are allowed to be sold within the EU and points out that her country has one of the lowest rates of smoking.
But Sweden and the snus makers will have to battle Brussels to get their product to market as health experts warn consuming tobacco in this way is dangerous and highly addictive.
“There are strong suspicions that mouth and pancreatic cancers and also cardiovascular disease increase for people that use snus,” said Anders Ahlbom, a professor at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.
“We’ve managed to save 400 million Europeans from snus. Why bring it in just because the tobacco industry wants to?” he asked.
Sweden’s Institute for Public Health published a report in May arguing there was “strong scientific proof that (snus) has negative effects on health.”