'The snus issue is all about politics - not science and health'

The snuffing Swede has become a symbol for alternative nicotine products around the world. At least in harm reduction circles - a growing global movement that attracts everyone from doctors and researchers to active consumers and politicians. Lidingö resident Bengt Wiberg is the snus user who takes on the role of both advocate and consumer when the movement gathers annually in Warsaw for the Global Forum on Nicotine.

Vejpkollen reports from Global Forum on Nicotine 2023.

Warsaw. Poland. The Global Forum on Nicotine is the world's largest conference on nicotine and harm reduction for smokers. During four busy days, researchers, activists, entrepreneurs, journalists, officials and policy makers come together to discuss smoking, tobacco, nicotine, research and innovations in the field of harm reduction.

Researchers from all over the world

Bengt Wiberg, snus user, innovator and keen advocate of the Nordic version of harm minimisation, has been attending the conference for many years. Not least as a speaker and part of panels dealing with snus and nicotine pouches. In many contexts, he has taken on the role of "the face of snus" and become the person who explains to the world why Swedes smoke less and use snus instead.

"The Global Forum on Nicotine is an extremely important conference. It brings together the world's leading experts in harm reduction under one roof for a few days. There are consumers, doctors, researchers and industry people; it's very high profile. Compared to other conferences dealing with tobacco and nicotine, the doors are often closed to those who are critical of the issue. That is not the case here. Everyone is welcome and the discussion is open" says Bengt Wibergwhen we meet in the lobby outside the conference. 

E-cigarettes and snus

The theme of this year's conference is the future of nicotine use and lessons from history. The debate on harm minimisation for smokers has been ongoing for almost 20 years, as have efforts to make smoke-free nicotine alternatives acceptable around the world. Much of the debate has centred on e-cigarettes. Not surprising, perhaps, given that this particular product has been the main alternative for smokers from an international perspective. But according to Bengt Wiberg, a Swedish snus user who also uses e-cigarettes from time to time, the issue of Swedish snus has not always received the attention it deserves. But that is changing, he says. Especially in recent years, since interest in Sweden's low smoking rate has come into focus.

'When I first became actively involved in 2018, few people in the harm reduction movement talked about snus and nicotine pouches - it was all about vaping. Now it's almost always mentioned alongside e-cigarettes. This is very positive," says Bengt Wiberg.

Bad arguments triggered activism

His commitment to snus and harm minimisation started five years ago. It was when the EU decided to continue to ban the sale of snus in all EU countries except Sweden. Swedish Match had challenged the ban in the European Court of Justice and Bengt Wiberg was in the audience.

'I had never been an activist in my life. But suddenly I found myself in a courtroom with judges in wigs and black coats who were deciding on the impact of snus on public health in Sweden. The anti-nicotine activists' lawyers got away with really bad arguments - like that Swedish men smoke less because of 'parental leave' or that they 'have a healthier lifestyle than other European men', says Bengt Wiberg.

"Snus is about politics - not health"

He laughs a little and shakes his head.

"It was absurd to hear. Snus, which many Swedish men, including myself, use to stay smoke-free, apparently had nothing to do with "quitting smoking". 100,000 pages of scientific research on how we use snus were completely ignored. It came from Swedish Match and was therefore not considered credible. Snus would continue to be banned, while cigarettes would be allowed. If anything, that was even more absurd. Then I realised that the snus issue is all about politics, and not at all about health or science."

Grassroots activism

Bengt Wiberg now launched the EU for snus network. Twitter and Facebook were the platforms that worked best and in a short time he managed to get thousands of members from nearly 100 countries around the world. It was grassroots activism that attracted doctors, scientists and other activists to take a closer look at the snus phenomenon.

"I realised that there was a huge educational need around snus and nicotine pouches. That still applies. The rest of the world doesn't know what this stuff really is, and many people probably think it's just something strange that we Nordic people put under our lips. Knowledge about snus production, nicotine itself and how we use the products arouses a lot of interest."

Almost smoke-free in Sweden

According to the WHO, a country is considered smoke-free when less than five per cent of the population smokes. In Sweden, the proportion of daily smokers is 5.8 per cent in the latest surveys. 

"Among Swedish men it is even lower. And this is of course due to snus, as every normal person understands. We see a similar trend in Norway, where the proportion of smokers is decreasing as more people use snus. This is also visible among women, who like nicotine portions more than regular snus," says Bengt Wiberg.

A smorgasbord

A recurring topic at the Global Forum on Nicotine is the "Swedish model" for nicotine. What is driving down smoking in Sweden? According to Bengt Wiberg, it is not easy, but one important factor is the availability of many different nicotine products. 

"Even though we have a low tax on cigarettes, relative to the average income, we often choose other nicotine products. It's like a smorgasbord in the shops and it's that availability that drives this, sometimes in combination with various smoking bans and regulations."

More profit from smoke-free products

He also points out that convenience stores and petrol stations can actually make more money selling smoke-free products than selling cigarettes. Even if they don't know it themselves, of course.

"Retailers actually have a financial interest in converting smokers to snus or e-cigarettes. Today, for example, the profit margins on nicotine pouches are significantly better than for cigarettes. The question is whether all shop owners are aware of this? If not, it's important to highlight it a bit more. If you manage to convert 10 smokers a week from smoking to vaping or snus, you are not only making a contribution to public health - you are also making more money," says Bengt Wiberg.

Created a new snuff bag

Besides unpaid activism, Bengt Wiberg also runs the company Sting Free, which produces nicotine pouches in a modified pouch that can reduce the impact of snus on the gums. Something he is proud of.

"It was actually a desperate measure from the beginning. My dentist complained about an irritation I had in my gums. He told me I had to stop using snus. "No way," I thought. When I got home, I thought about it and started experimenting. Would there be any way to reduce the irritation from the snus bag? Finally, I tried putting a thin compress on one side of the bag. I did this until my next appointment with the doctor. The irritation was gone and he was very pleased," Bengt jokes.

Eventually, after a lot of market research, medical consultations and investment, this experience led to a new type of snus bag. He is now launching it in shops selling other snus.

"But that's how it started. After a visit to the dentist. I think it's important that snus is open to everyone, even those who find it irritating under their lips. If it stands in the way of someone quitting smoking, Sting free can hopefully do a lot of good." Says Bengt Wiberg, snus user, entrepreneur and activist, before we part ways in the crowd at the Global Forum on Nicotine.

Reds note:
Vejpkollen sometimes co-operates with other media covering the same areas. This is a longer version of an article that was also published in Convenience Stores Sweden News.

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