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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.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    Snus? No, it's snuff, which has been in use for more than 500 years, experiencing various levels of popularity or acceptance. The only intrigue is how something so pedestrian can be beat up to a story like this.

  2. Gregory Conley

    logged in via Twitter

    I wish this article had focused more on the public health impact of snus in Sweden. The positive mentions of snus merely note that its use is "less harmful." However, there is a large body of science that links snus to Sweden having the lowest smoking rate and lowest rate of tobacco disease & death in Europe. Snus use is 98-99% less harmful, and the continued prohibition on snus in Europe has and will continue to damn hundreds of thousands or millions of Europeans to needless suffering and early death.

    1. Mathias Klang

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gregory Conley

      Hi Gregory,
      I wrote an earlier piece that was more about the harmfulness/safety of snus Space constraints meant that I could not re-visit this topic.

      But we must be careful of not mixing correlation with causation. Sweden has a very low smoking rate. The lowest in total but not in all groups. But this cannot be explained by the fact that we have snus or a snus tradition. Smoking/non-smoking…

      Read more
    2. Brad Rodu

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mathias Klang


      Your reply illustrates the impact of snus use on smoking in Sweden: "For example, many people who use snus have never smoked." In addition to serving as a substitute for cigarettes among men, boys in Sweden who use snus never smoke, which has resulted in smoking rates that are one-half of that in other EU countries, and one-half the rate of smoking among Swedish girls ( So snus use has a positive effect on both smoking initiation and smoking…

      Read more
    3. Mathias Klang

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Brad Rodu

      While I agree with most of what you write I would still argue that snus is not the great substitute. When I wrote that many who use snus have never smoked I meant that they would not have smoked even without the presence of snus. Correlation is not causation.

    4. John Hartshorn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Mathias Klang

      Anti-tobacco crusaders object to any use of the noxious weed, however benign it might be in comparison to smoking. Public health authorities, once they have studied the data, are likely to disagree.

      People throughout history have sought ways to alter experience with chemical substances and no amount of moralizing and education is ever likely to change that fact, especially among the young. The best we can hope for is an enlightened policy that favors the less destructive ways of pursuing these…

      Read more
    5. Mathias Klang

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Hartshorn

      So I totally agree about the importance of knowing the risks and personal choice. But I object when snus is being proposed openly as an alternative almost as if its a medical approach against smoking. In that case the risk of snus should be compared against nicotine patches or gum or other methods for quitting smoking.

      Snus users are not using it as an alternative to smoking. (Even though some may). Smoking is fundamentally different. The social norms and personal desires surrounding snus are quite different to those surrounding cigarettes. They are poor substitutes for each other.

      There is also the problem of addiction. Snus is addictive, much more so than gum or patches. So as a treatment it is problematic.

  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    At least smoking looks cool! Chewing tobacco ... gross.

    1. Mathias Klang

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Good point. The social norms and acceptance surrounding the products is an important part of this discussion. But you cannot generalize global norms to all local situations. In the last decades the "cool" of snus has been growing.

  4. Matt Stevens

    Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

    Snus would appear to be a no brainer and would no doubt decrease the prevalence of cigarette smoking. The talk of addiction is just a diversion, where the focus should be on harm reduction. Settle down on the focus of "my word is final".

    And what is with the contradictory statements in the first two paragraphs. One minute it is snorted, nek minnet rolled in a ball and put under the tongue. I know which one is right.

    1. Mathias Klang

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      Hi Matt,
      Oh hell. The first two paras are a typo. Snus is not snorted. Nor is it not put under the tongue. It's put between the gum and lip. Most seem to prefer in the front of the mouth but I have noticed more women placing snus further back in the mouth so that it doesn't show as well.

      But to say snus leads to less smoking is not a provable statement. You may as well say that the less smokers in Sweden as more people here have blue eyes. It is not a no brainer.

      Looking historically snus…

      Read more
    2. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Mathias Klang

      Thanks for the quick response Mathais. Fro my knowledge in Australia smoking is more prevalent in low SES groups. I would only see something like snus as an alternate to take up, and yes become addicted to like coffee, sugar, most pharmaceutical drugs. As an earlier comment said, humans search out substances to alter or enhance their feelings about reality, alcohol being the most widely used. Snus is clearly safer than smoking, and equally as safe as someone staying on NRT . I still say no brainer. But we are all entitled to our opinion. All the best with your research.

  5. Alexander Kwai Jones

    logged in via Facebook

    I think thereis a Typo above cause snus is not taken by snorting or snifing like the article suggests..Nasal Snuff is put up the nose not snus