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Don’t snort, wet smokeless tobacco is an addictive political thriller

For most people, the idea of a wet smokeless tobacco may seem more like a joke than reality. This may be why potential changes to the European Union’s tobacco directive, which may allow its sale all over…

Former European commissioner for health and consumer policy, John Dalli gives a news conference in Brussels a week after his resignation. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

For most people, the idea of a wet smokeless tobacco may seem more like a joke than reality. This may be why potential changes to the European Union’s tobacco directive, which may allow its sale all over the EU, is not really making headlines – no matter how exciting the details are.

And the details are exciting.

At the heart of the matter is an addictive product of debated impact on users' health. The nicest thing about it – and this is repeated often – is that it’s less harmful than a more harmful product. And opening up the European market for it will provide a huge new revenue stream for tobacco manufacturers.

Add to this rumours of corruption, bribes, undue influence and a break-in at the offices of anti-tobacco lobbyists and the whole thing begins to sound like a political thriller.

What is it?

Snus is an addictive tobacco-based substance. It’s wet or damp ground tobacco consumed by sniffing or snorting. It’s made out of finely ground tobacco, which is treated with salt solution and sodium carbonate and then either fermented or pasteurised. Aromas and taste enhancers are then added.

Snus is taken orally and comes in two forms. It’s either sold in packets of loose snus, which is rolled into a small ball and placed under the lip or prepackaged portions, which are also placed under the lip.

Once placed under the lip, the nicotine from the tobacco is absorbed by the body into the bloodstream. Snus was introduced into Sweden (which remains its largest market, alongside Norway and Finland) in the beginning of the 17th century as an alternative to chewing tobacco.

The extent of the negative effects of snus on health is much debated. The Swedish National Institute of Public Health has endorsed a study from the medical research university Karolinska Insititute and warns that snus is carcinogenic and increases the risk of death through cardiovascular disease.

According to the European Union’s Tobacco Products Directive (2001/37/EC) member states “shall prohibit the placing on the market of tobacco for oral use”. But Sweden negotiated the continued sales for snus as a term for joining. The derogation came with a condition that Sweden ensures oral tobacco is not placed on the market in other states where the directive is applicable.

In 2010, the EU launched a consultation on possible revisions to the tobacco directive. One of the revisions could allow the sale of snus within the European Union.

Prepackaged and loose snus. Zozza/Wikimedia Commons

Things get strange: Tobaccogate

Tobaccogate begins when snus producer Swedish Match complains to the EU commission that it’s been approached by a Maltese citizen asking for money in exchange for influencing the EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, Maltese national John Dalli.

The European Anti-Fraud Office launched an investigation in July 2012 “…related to the attempts to invoice the company Swedish Match and the European Smokeless Tobacco Council (ESTOC) through an intermediary in paying a bribe to obtain the lifting of the EU ban on snus and to have met with interested parties, lobbyists and economic operators to discuss subjects related to the snus case in a possible infraction of the rules governing the impartiality of the Members of the Commission.”

The investigation concluded that John Dalli hadn’t done enough to disassociate himself from the person soliciting money for services. And Dalli was dismissed from his role as EU commissioner for health and consumer protection on the October 15, 2012.

The next plot twist occurs on the night of October 17, 2012 when the shared offices of a group of anti-tobacco lobby organisations are broken into and confidential papers and laptops are stolen.

In an interview in The Times of Malta, Mr John Dalli says, “In fact, to tell you the truth, we were also suggesting a ban on all smokeless tobacco but that was changed when we negotiated with the other services in the Commission.”

The whole tobaccogate affair is embarrassing for the politicians involved, and an affront to the ways in which rules are made. And, sadly, how they may be influenced by the lure of huge amounts of money.

The question about whether the European Union should allow the sale of a product that’s addictive and harmful, albeit less harmful than other tobacco products, has fallen out of focus in the light of political wrangling, rumours and conspiracy theories. So even if justice is ulitmately done, it will be hard to believe it’s been done fairly.