‘Sweden is the harm reduction capital of the world’

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A representative from a UK harm reduction advocacy group claims snus-using Swedes – and not policymakers – deserve credit for making Sweden the “harm reduction capital of the world”.

He proceeded to take Sweden to task, however, for failing to communicate the public health benefits of snus more forcefully, asking why the government hasn’t done more to promote snus exports to countries struggling to reduce smoking rates.

“What you failed to do is go and tell the world how wonderful snus is and how it can help save lives and improve health around the world,” said Mark Oates, a member of the board of the New Nicotine Alliance (NNA) during a recent visit to Stockholm.

“I think some entrepreneurs need to get to Africa and Asia and start selling low carcinogen Swedish snus.”

Oates was in the Swedish capital speaking at a seminar organised by the Swedish chapter of the NNA, which works to improve public understanding of tobacco harm reduction and promote regulations that ensure the availability of safe and effective nicotine delivery devices.

Sweden: a tobacco harm reduction leader

Sweden, he explained, has become a leader in tobacco harm reduction due to snus. 

“It’s not because of good government. It’s not because of good regulation. It’s purely because people decided to put snus in a pouch and put it in their mouth and enjoy the nicotine. And that’s fantastic,” he said.

Speaking about policies in the UK, Oates pointed out that repeated efforts by policymakers to reduce smoking, from banning smoking indoors to raising taxes, have failed to have the desired effects.

“That didn’t really have any effect on the number of people smoking. All it did is result in more smuggling of foreign tobacco products into the UK, and a loss of revenue for the UK Chancellor,” he said.

READ MORE: Learn about the Swedish Experience with tobacco harm reduction

Oates instead cited the introduction of a safer nicotine delivery device – e-cigarettes – as a more effective tool in the fight to reduce smoking in the UK. 

In the last decade, the number of vapers in the UK has mushroomed from roughly none to nearly four million. At the same time, smoking rates have dropped from 20.2 percent in 2011 to 14.7 percent in 2018, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics and Public Health England.

And while snus remains banned in the UK, Oates estimates that roughly 100,000 Brits use snus based on research looking at illicit sales in the country.

“It’s football fans using snus, athletes and people in the military that want to enjoy nicotine but maintain their fitness,” he explained. “And also, people in the financial sector who don’t want to come down from their tower offices to have a cigarette when they can instead trade on the financial markets and use snus to get their nicotine.”

Legalise snus post-Brexit

Oates said he believes the UK will leave the European Union if — as he believes — Boris Johnson wins a majority and the 2019 election. He added that Brexit opens up the opportunity to legalise snus and thus serve as a “test case” to prove the public health benefits of lifting the current ban on snus. 

“If we legalise snus and we see a dramatic reduction in smokers and long-term improvement in health, then that could perhaps make the EU think again,” he explained.

Oates also believes the recent decision by the FDA in the US to classify snus as a “modified risk” tobacco product could also prompt policymakers in Europe to review the current ban on snus.

He concluded by bringing up the fact that smoking kills seven million people every year – 20,000 per day – and it’s lowering those numbers that motivates him and other harm reduction advocates. 

Oates explained that his office walls currently feature images of other figures who have had a profound impact on public health. One is Hon Lik, inventor of the modern e-cigarette. Another is Norman Borlaug, whose genetically modified “golden rice” sparked the Third Agricultural Revolution that saved more than a billion people’s lives

“I’d love to be able to put up the Swedish flag too because the Swedish nation with its snus could contribute to saving a billion people’s lives across the world,” he said.

Read the article in Swedish: “Sverige är skademinimeringens huvudstad”

READ MORE: Discover more about snus and the Swedish Experience