How do Swedes stay smoke-free? This is the question Vejpkollen and Convenience Stores Sweden are asking in a new series of articles that will run during the spring at Convenience Stores News.
In an ongoing series of articles this spring, you will meet vapers, snus users, nicotine pouch users and everything in between from different parts of Sweden - a country where hardly anyone smokes anymore. They tell their stories about how they went from smoking to alternative nicotine products - and how the journey to becoming smoke-free actually happened.
But why do this? Who cares about this smoker in our country in a cold corner of the world?
Sweden hardly smokes anymore
The series of articles is really an attempt to understand the reality behind the claim that Sweden will soon be a 'smoke-free country'. Because even though half a million Swedes still smoke, they are still only 6 per cent of the adult population. This is really low. According to WHO and EU criteria, it is on the borderline of the definition of "smoke-free". This is the "major goal" of the WHO Tobacco Convention, a treaty that was established over 20 years ago. But although smoking is declining in many (western) countries, it is going faster in Sweden. Much faster, in fact. We are far ahead of everyone else.
Tough anti-smoking policies?
I recently asked an influential doctor working on tobacco prevention in Sweden what he thought this was due to. He often appears as an expert at seminars organised by the think tank Tobaksfakta and as a commentator in the media. According to him, and many others active in the anti-tobacco movement, Sweden's low smoking rate is due to tough legislation and very successful tobacco prevention: bans, a few more bans and a good dose of stigmatisation. Smoking has disappeared because of tough policies, something the anti-tobacco movement has been advocating for decades.
Not a good explanation
The problem with this explanation is that Sweden has not been alone in pursuing this hard line against smoking. We've seen similar legislation in many other countries, and virtually every European country has tough rules in place. The EU average is 23% smokers.. In Sweden it is six per cent. Among young people, the figures are even lower. Tough rules don't seem to be the key here, it's obviously something else. Also.
The role of snus?
As most people already know snusing very many in Sweden. Almost 20 per cent of men. 10 per cent of women. Among young people, where less than 10 per cent smoke daily, it is decreasing rapidly as the use of nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes increases. An alternative explanation for why so few people smoke here in Sweden seems to be the use of alternatives to cigarettes, among both adults and young people. We see a similar patterns in Norwaybut not so much in Finland, where snus has not been allowed to be sold for 20 years and e-cigarettes are heavily restricted by a flavour ban (in Finland, 14% of the population smoke).
A successful combination
I personally believe that the explanation for our low smoking rates is not so simple that it can be found in one or the other. Having spoken and interviewed so many nicotine users over the years, a colourful pattern has emerged. Every person's journey to becoming smoke-free is lined with, on the one hand, reactions to various external circumstances, such as a ban on smoking in pubs, more expensive cigarettes, a ban on the beloved menthol cigar. On the other hand, we have that friend who brought an e-cig to the party, or the snus that has always been there to complement smoking, or just a flatmate who thought it smelled too bad at home after a round on the balcony.
Cannot be simplified
Behind that 6 per cent there are thousands of stories. It's not just about an anti-voice line in politics. It's more about reactions and interactions, sometimes in line with the policy, sometimes as a counter-reaction to the policy, sometimes completely outside the policy. I am quite convinced that a ban on smoking in pubs in Sweden (or Norway) does not mean the same thing to a nicotine user as it does in Finland or France, for example. The difference is a little pill under the lip, bought in the shop around the corner.
Addiction - sink or swim?
A common thread among the people I have spoken to is the idea that water always takes the easiest way down the mountain. The bond that many people have with smoking is not just about an addiction to nicotine. It is just as much about self-confidence, self-image and enjoyment. Positive things, a flow that finds its way down the mountain of life. Quitting smoking is often about coming to terms with your vices, for some it's easiest to just throw them overboard, for others it's about shifting the burden. Alternative sources of nicotine are one of many ways to let the water flow, without clogging important outlets that cause damming.
Allowing the load to become a flotation aid, rather than a burden.
The stories of non-smokers
In the stories I am trying to highlight, the availability of strawberry-flavoured e-cigarettes, citrus-scented snus and berry-sweet nicotine pouches play a crucial role. These are mums, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, sons and daughters who don't smoke anymore. In a country that is almost smoke-free.