Finland. The Nordic country where most people smoke, snus is illegal and e-cigarettes are regulated as if they were cigarettes. What is it like to be a road user in Finland? Is it possible to use e-cigarettes in a country whose government does everything to prevent it?
Vejpkollen met Jari Ollikka, road user and spokesperson for the consumer organisation Vapers Finland.
The first thing I notice when I look around the station in Helsinki is actually the smell of cigarette smoke. It might be a coincidence, but it's still a bit symbolic. Since 2016, Finland has taken a hard line against all products that compete with cigarette sales. Not surprisingly, this has affected the statistics. 12-14 per cent of Finns still smoke, compared to 6 per cent in Sweden and 10 per cent in Norway.
Imported snus and disposable models
Snus is banned from sale under EU law, flavours in e-cigarettes and e-liquid are heavily restricted, and nicotine pouches have been banned until now. recently regulated as medicines. At the same time, the use of both snus and nicotine pouches is relatively high. Around 9 per cent of Finns use snus, imported from Sweden. The use of e-cigarettes, in particular disposable models, has increased significantly among young people - just like in all other countries.
Vejpat for 12 years
Jari Ollikka frowns slightly when we talk about nicotine pouches and disposable models. We meet at the railway station on this chilly spring day in Helsinki. Is it really that bad? No, it could be the sun stinging my eyes too, I think, not quite so clearly. But still.
He quit smoking in 2011, he says. And that was with a little ego pen and a strong nicotine juice from the convenience store - it was the latest e-cigarette technology could offer at the time, 12 years ago.
"I went back and forth between smoking and vaping in the beginning. But once I found a good vape and a good flavour, I was done with cigarettes," he says.
Before the EU rules came
Vaping products were barely regulated anywhere in the world at the time and Finland was no exception. In 2014, the EU tried to turn e-liquid with nicotine into a medicine. The Commission failed, after a large group of users got a hearing in Parliament. Instead, the EU incorporated e-cigarettes and e-liquids into the new Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), which was ready to be implemented in 2016.
Immediate ban on flavours
That's when Finnish anti-tobacco activists stepped in. Instead of making e-liquid a medicine (the original plan in both the EU and Sweden, for example), a 'plan b' had emerged. The plan was called 'flavour ban'. And it soon became clear that Finland would be the first country in the EU to introduce such a ban.
"When the EU set up its TPD rules, there was an aggressive discussion here in Finland. And that wasn't very pleasant for us road users. We didn't get much say in the matter," remembers Jari Ollikka.
To taste like cigarettes
The reasoning was that safer nicotine products and smoking cessation were something that pharmaceutical companies should have a patent on - not small business owners and tobacco companies. And that was enough, according to a majority in the Finnish Parliament. So when the TPD was implemented in Finland, it was decided to restrict the possibility to flavour the e-liquid in e-cigarettes with anything. They could only be sold with "characteristic" flavours". And since e-cigarettes, according to the reasoning, were really just cigarettes that for some reason have an "e" in the prefix, these would also have a "characteristic" flavour.
"Like tobacco, in other words. Perfectly logical in their world," says Jari Ollikka, with clear sarcasm.
Many became smokers - again
"Our authorities have never actually defined what "a tobacco flavour" is. Even less have they shown the slightest interest in controlling the e-juices available on the market today. It's as if calling something a "tobacco flavour" is enough for the inspectors" says Jari Ollikka when we talk over an everyday buffet in a restaurant in the centre of Helsinki.
"For us as vapers, it meant that all the e-juices we were used to disappeared from the shops. Many stopped vaping and went back to cigarettes, of course. Some may have switched to snus instead. Others started mixing their own e-juices," says Mr Perez. Jari Ollikka.
A new market for flavours
The do-it-yourself solution quickly became the basis for a 'new' market in Finland. The base liquids, propylene glycol and glycerine, began to be sold in convenient packaging, and flavour shots and nicotine were sold separately.
"However, the flavours could not be sold or advertised 'for mixing in e-liquid'. To avoid breaking the law, they were labelled as 'for baking' or 'food additives'." As in other countries, we have nicotine caps with 20 mg per millilitre. We buy everything separately and mix it together at home. It's not difficult - but I feel sorry for the smokers who can't switch from cigars to e-cigs without having to deal with all this," said Mr Higgins. Jari Ollikka.
Two per cent road pairs
Despite the flavour ban, the share of active road users is around two percent in Finland. About the same as in Sweden. But they were more numerous before," says Jari Ollikka, who has been active in the consumer organisation Vapers Finland for a long time.
'There were a lot more of us before all the bans came in. The organisation had support from the companies, which gave discounts to members. When that disappeared, interest decreased and we lost members."
Ban on buying online
But it wasn't really the flavour ban that was the big blow to tap dancing in Finland, notes Jari Ollikka. More bans were waiting around the corner.
"The flavouring is quite easy to do yourself, as we road users are innovative. However, it was the extensive ban on selling vaping products online that made things very difficult. We used to be able to buy our stuff online, from other countries or from local vape shops. When that disappeared, I know it was the last straw for many road users. How would someone who doesn't live near a roadside shop get a new mod, spare parts and so on. I heard people saying: "I'll drive until the mod breaks, then I'll probably start smoking again".
Beginners were affected
After the online ban, there wasn't much left in the market, especially for beginners, notes Jari Ollikka.
"I bought my first e-cig in a convenience store. But they only sell tobacco companies' pod systems now. If you want good stuff, you have to live near a physical vape shop. It works in the big cities, but not in the countryside" says Jari Ollikka.
Challenged the ban
Despite this, a number of roadside shops have kept their doors open. But even this seems to be changing. At the time of writing, a court will decide whether it is ok for a vape shop, i.e. a shop that normally sells e-cigarettes and e-liquid, to market flavours at all. The authorities' reasoning is quite blunt: IF the vape shop sells flavours (which is NOT a so-called "tobacco flavour") - it does so with the intention of the customer making e-liquid from it. This would be a legal offence. The tricky thing is that this would NOT apply if a "normal" shop sells the same product.
"We had all been waiting for this to happen eventually", says Mr Perez. Jari Ollikka. "They are really looking to get rid of the weave."
Roadside shops closed - tax on VG
At the same time, the tax authorities have started sending invoices to road transport companies selling the basic liquids propylene glycol and glycerine. The reasoning is the same. If the liquids are intended to be used to mix e-liquid, they should also be taxed as an e-liquid. The company FinnVape - which had taken the flavouring case to the highest court - was unable to pay the huge invoice sent by the tax authorities - retroactive tax on thousands of litres of base liquid. Bankruptcy came soon after.
"Finnvape was the company that dared to challenge the state over the flavourings. And the state bankrupted them. That doesn't feel quite right," says Jari Ollikkaa little sad, but not completely despondent.
Specialist shops for flavourings
We're having a coffee after dinner when he shows us a website he recently found - a specialist shop for 'aromas'.
"Bake cookies, flavour them like the pros!" is the headline. Pretty much.
He grins a little.
When I look at the site, at the logos, the brands, the symbols on the flavouring bottles, I understand what it's all about: these are famous e-juice brands, presented as something you "mix in your cake or drink". Of course, these are not flavours "made" to flavour drinks - although technically you can do that. This is how road users can get the flavours they want in their e-liquid.
Under the table, with a twinkle in his eye, from one caravan to another.
"They don't understand what they are doing"
"Politicians in Finland did not know, then or now, what they were legislating about. Now it's like this instead. The problem with the system, which is actually being enforced, is that some users may be under the impression that any flavouring can be used to vape. That you can buy any "cake flavour" in the shop and mix e-juice with it. This is literally dangerous, especially if the flavours are oil-based and not water-soluble. A vape shop would never sell such products - but they are out of the game now," says Mr Gates. Jari Ollikka.
Disposable vapes and chewing tobacco
Opposition to e-cigarettes, but also to alternative nicotine products that challenge cigarettes, remains strong in Finland. Nevertheless, the use of these products is growing in Finland as much as in other countries. Disposable models are popular among young people, as are the white snuff, nicotine pouches. I ask if he notices this?
"No, not really. Snus is already big here in Finland and we can import it for our own use. It is also possible to buy "chewing tobacco" - a variant of snus that has to be chewed a little before it goes under the lip. But you don't see disposable models among the elderly very often, and never in the shops of course. There are only cigarettes." says Jari Ollikka.
Before we part, I ask him if he sees any "brightness" in the future. He grins again.
"No, not really," he says, blowing a cloud over the square, mostly for the sake of the picture.