TRANGSVIKEN, SWEDEN: Bags of nicoten-free "snus" or snuff at the production line in a file photo from 18 August 2004 in Trangsviken some 600 km north of Stockholm. Building on the centuries-old tradition of "snus", a Scandinavian form of moist snuff used by more than a million Swedes seeking a smokeless tobacco, has given the enterprising woman Anneli Hellstroem hopes to cash in on the European wave of public smoking restrictions and health campaigns urging smokers to stub out for good. Hellstroem, 40, started her company in 2002, making each individual packet and labels by hand at her kitchen table and selling them mostly to friends. A year later, the company had three employees. Now, she has a staff of 13, her Choice brand is sold at more than 1,000 retailers in Sweden, and sales are expected to top 20 million kronor (2.7 million dollars, 2.2 million euros) this year. AFP PHOTO / SVEN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

    If we want to benefit from Brexit, the first thing we should do is make snus legal

    16 March 2017

    In Sweden, the smoking rate has fallen to a mere nine per cent, as the New Scientist reports

    Sweden is lighting the way to a cigarette-free world. The Swedish government has released data showing that the proportion of men aged between 30 and 44 smoking fell to just 5 per cent in 2016. 

    Overall, just 8 per cent of Swedish men now smoke on a daily basis – itself a record-low percentage – compared with a European Union average of just over 25 per cent. The proportion of Swedish women who smoke also continues to fall, and is now 10 per cent.

    It is extremely unusual for men to be smoking less than women. In fact, Sweden is the only country where this happens. To understand why, you need to appreciate that Sweden’s exceptionally low smoking rate is due to the availability of snus, a smokeless tobacco product that is banned in the rest of the EU because the authorities in Brussels wrongly assumed that it caused mouth cancer in the early 1990s. Snus has been used in Scandinavia for 200 years but has traditionally been associated with men, hence the higher rate of smoking among women.

    It has not always been this way. In the 1970s, 40 per cent of Swedish men smoked, a typical figure for a Western society at the time. Also typical was the fact that Swedish women smoked less. Thereafter, smokers gradually switched to snus and Sweden’s smoking rate is now less than half the European average.  

    Unfortunately, by the time this quiet revolution was noticed by outside observers, such as Dr Brad Rodu in the USA, the EU had banned snus in every member state except Sweden, which had demanded an opt-out when it joined in 1995. 

    In 2002, the Royal College of Physicians criticised the ‘perverse regulatory imbalance’ that closed off an option for smokers who wanted to greatly reduce their health risks. The following year, the director of Action on Smoking and Health, Clive Bates, joined other anti-smoking campaigners in calling for an end to the EU ban. Nothing happened. Nor did anything happen when the EU revised its Tobacco Products Directive in 2014. 

    Now Sweden’s smoking rate is just nine per cent. The EU average is 23 per cent. The UK, which has a much more aggressive set of anti-smoking policies than Sweden, has a rate of 18 per cent. The results of Sweden’s natural experiment could not be starker.

    As the New Scientist notes, legal action is currently underway to overturn the snus ban in court. Snus has never been convincingly linked to any form of cancer (including pancreatic cancer, which is mentioned in the New Scientist article). Indeed, Sweden has not only have the lowest rate of lung cancer in the EU, but also the lowest rate of pancreatic cancer and one of the lowest rates of oral cancer

    And yet snus remains the only tobacco product that cannot legally be sold in the EU. The UK has to take its share of the blame for this reckless act of folly as it was Edwina Currie who started the whole panic in the late 1980s. But what Britain started, it can finish. If legal action fails, repealing this idiotic law should be on the to-do list of the Department for Exiting the European Union. When it comes to benefiting from Brexit, fruit does not hang any lower than this.