Håkan, 48, ex-smoker: "It is very important that e-cigs are available everywhere cigarettes are"

Snuff and cigarettes have long been a natural part of Håkan Friedrich's life. Almost 40 years after his first puff, the cigarettes have been replaced by e-cigs and the snus by citrus-flavoured nicotine pouches. Follow Håkan's journey to becoming smoke-free - a story about Sweden and how smoking disappeared. It starts in a convenience store in Västra Frölunda.

- Road studs co-operates with Convenience Stores Sweden News to depict Swedish nicotine consumptionbeyond the statistics. This is a slightly modified version of the original report that was published in CSS News. -

"I probably took my first puff when I was 11. I even tried to buy a cigarette then. It didn't go well, because I didn't know what kind I wanted. "A red blend" I said. But that wasn't available and the cashier ended up having to help me figure out that I was looking for Prince. Then she told my mum. It was in the convenience store where we lived. Everyone knew everyone."

Håkan Friedrich, 48, remembers the details. Frölunda, a suburb of Gothenburg in the mid-1980s. The classic square had just been renovated and 42 per cent of Swedish men over 15 smoked daily, 26 per cent of women. But not Håkan Friedrich's parents. He was born in 1974 and grew up in a smoke-free home.

"Smoking was completely out of the question at home. My mum had asthma and reacted to most things, and my dad was a snuffer," says Håkan. 

"Likes to get stuck into new technologies"

We meet in the woods of Ale, a few kilometres north of Gothenburg. Håkan Friedrich is moving quickly up a hill, looking for the mint green Frisbee he has just thrown between the trees. We are playing Disc Golf, or Frisbee golf, a sport that has become Håkan Friedrich's favourite pastime during the week when he is not working. He does his three-day shifts at a plastics factory in Gothenburg. 40 hours per weekend - completely free during the week.

"It suits me perfectly. I've been at the factory since 1999 and I've learnt on the job. I'm the kind of person who likes to get stuck into technical stuff and I've had the opportunity to do so, both at home and at work."

Smoked like crazy as a teenager

Vaping, e-cigarettes, is one of his many hobbies, as well as 3D printing and just about anything else that spells 'new technology'. Håkan Friedrich has a tendency to want to be the first with "the new", he says. If it's not mobile phones and gadgets, it's something else. That seems to have always been the case. He was also one of the first to start smoking among his friends, he recalls. Red Prince. Soft pack. That was the order of the day in his early teens.

'I took the test early and started smoking fully when I was fourteen. I smoked like crazy throughout my teenage years. But snus was also there, on the side, all the time. If I remember correctly, there were actually many friends who switched to snus only, even then. But I preferred to smoke."

Never tried to stop

We stop at a throwing point, just like on a golf course, but without clubs and balls. A short break. Håkan takes two quick puffs on his vejp, a rainbow-coloured story with a big tank. Shining in the spring sun. But it quickly goes into his pocket again, and before the little cloud has dissipated, he has picked up a well-used snuff box. A nicotine pouch goes in. The break is over and the next frisbee flies like a missile over the camp.

Håkan never really tried to quit smoking, he says. But he has still stopped at times, mostly due to external reasons.

'The first time was when I attended a diving course in Östersund. Then I switched completely to snus. Real snus, that is. Nicotine pouches didn't exist then. I thought the portioned snus was very practical. You could pick up a snus with your tongue without taking off your gloves. It was freezing cold."

Different periods - snus or cigarettes

When he returned to more southern latitudes, the cigarettes started to creep up again, he recalls. 

"There were a lot of parties and there was a lot of drinking on weekends. Smoking is more social and became important when meeting new people. So it wasn't long before I was smoking fully again. Even though I was still using snuff, cigarettes were the number one thing."

He says that it has always been that way. Snus and cigarettes, alternately. Different periods in life.
It was only in 2011 that everything changed.

"I remember being in the car with a friend when I saw a sign outside the shop where we used to buy snus. "We are now selling e-cigarettes!" I said, 'Stop the car'. It was a new piece of technology. I just had to try it. On pure instinct"

The cigarette started to taste bad

Since then, he has not smoked at all. Not that he hasn't tried, he says. 

"I learnt how to use the e-cig, a very simple device by today's standards. But it was enough to get me interested. I tried smoking a cigarette again after a few months. But it just tasted bad"

'At that time it was possible to buy e-liquid with really high nicotine levels,' he recalls. It was not until 2018 that the EU Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) was implemented in Sweden, with a nicotine limit of 20 milligrams per millilitre.

"I think I started with 24 mg, but of course I had to try 32 mg too, just because it was available. It was way too strong, but as I said, I like to try different things" he laughs "It's probably that spirit that made me actually adapt to vaping instead of smoking. Pretty quickly, too."

"Bought e-juice in strange places"

"The supply of e-cigarettes in 2012 was drastically different from today," he says. It was long before the advent of disposable models, and everything from spare parts to e-liquid were rarities in the shops selling e-cigs.

"You could buy e-juice in the strangest places. Some sold them from little boxes behind the counter. Sometimes without labels. Some had fancier shelves, but the staff selling them couldn't answer any questions. They always knew less than me. So I went online and read up instead. That's where my partner and I ordered our stuff." 

Reduces risks enormously

Since e-cigarettes became the main source of nicotine, he stopped using both snus and cigarettes. He was not too worried about the health risks, although research on e-cigarettes was not as extensive then as it is today.

"I reasoned like this: If it turns out that vejpning is dangerous, I can always use snus instead. Regardless, it's a good decision to give up cigarettes. In fact, it has now been shown that vejpning is very safe. I've been following the research closely, especially from the UK. That vejpa involves less than five per cent of the risks compared to smoking. This has been known for a long time now, and the fact that the research keeps confirming it is very reassuring."

Becoming more and more "anti-tobacco"

In connection with weaning, he became more negative about tobacco in general. Even snus, he says. As with everything else, Håkan Friedrich went all-in. Soon he was spinning his own vaporisers (the small metal wire that heats up the e-liquid), building e-cigs from scratch, dismantling devices and learning how they worked at home in his apartment in Frölunda. He had become a road warrior. An enthusiast, to boot.

"I became more and more anti-tobacco as time went on. Even when it came to snus. I started to think that everything related to tobacco just felt wrong and tasted bad. Especially when I tried the tobacco flavours developed for e-cigs. Dishonourable. In my opinion."

Want to vary the flavours

"Flavours quickly became very important," he says.

"I vary the flavours a lot. I never buy the same thing every time, but try to take a new one and come back to what I like another time. I like different fruits and probably have seven or eight that I come back to. But I can't with pastries, cake flavours and various vanilla mixes. They taste like baboon vomit."

Started working extra - in a sweatshop

His newfound passion soon led him to take on extra work in one of Gothenburg's vape shops. "He was free on weekdays and had the time," he says. 

"I was their best customer too," he laughs. "I think I bought more in the store than all the other customers combined in the beginning and often hung around the premises. The staff sent customers they couldn't handle to me all the time. Then I might as well work there too, I thought."

Rapid development

Håkan Friedrich finds his frisbee out on the field. It is perfectly placed to reach the basket some ten metres away. A birdie. He has become good at this too, I think as we walk at a fast pace towards the green disc. Loke the dog runs ahead and sniffs. Håkan tells him off, wagging his tail. Another bag of nicotine goes under his lip before the last throw of the day.

Since e-cigarettes became popular, development has been rapid. Håkan Friedrich has seen it all. "A bit like mobile phones, but the other way around," he says.

"Dev has gone from small to large, from large to tiny, from flashy to quite simple. The disposable models are the latest thing. A great development, really."

Fascinated by nicotine pouches

The same goes for snus. Or rather, the product that emerged alongside snus: tobacco-free nicotine portions or white snus, as it came to be known. It turns out that Håkan was probably one of the first to try the modern nicotine pouch. Who else? I think. It was 2016, and a large snus company was about to start producing nicotine pouches. Through his job at the on-site factory, Håkan got to hold a newly manufactured box that was not allowed to leave the premises. No label and everything was super secret, he says. 

"There was a citrus flavour. Not a trace of tobacco. I was fascinated that snus could be made that way. It was an experience and completely new to me. I had to get into it too."

"Important that e-cigs are available everywhere"

So now he takes turns. Again. But this time it's every other vape, every other nicotine pouch. And he is happy with that. "Life as a smoker is far away," says Håkan. He sees the new nicotine products as very important for the future, especially for smokers but also for future generations. Perhaps it is the image of the 11-year-old in the suburbs of Frölunda that comes to mind. Or maybe just the years behind the cash register in a vape shop.

"I think it is very important that e-cigs and nicotine pouches are available everywhere there are cigarettes. This is what will work to get rid of smoking in the long run. Disposable e-cigs are both expensive and a bit flimsy. But a lot of people, like me, like how easy they are to use and prefer to get one instead of buying a packet of cigarettes. I always have some disposable ones in my car. Just in case.

Cigarettes are hidden away in shops

I ask how he sees the future of new nicotine products. Will cigarettes disappear from the market?

"Not completely. But they will be hidden away in the shops. The packages will be grey and dull. I think most people will switch to other products over time. Even young people - but we can see that they do, even today. And they do it even though they can't, just like I did," says Håkan Friedrich.

I leave him with his mates and his dog Loki in the woods outside Ale. 

"Fore," Håkan shouts, revealing the small nicotine pouch under his lip. A guy in khaki clothes hurries away a few hundred metres down the field as Håkan throws away the disc, heading for the next target.

Want to read more?

Vejpkollen has collected the reports on smoke-free Sweden under the heading of 'Smoke-free country'. (opens in new tab!)

And here you can read versions of the reports in Convenience Stores Sweden News:

Björn Åslander - e-cigs - "It must taste like smoke"

Nikita Lövheden in Partille - e-cigs and heets - "Can't stand tobacco flavours"

Therese Johansson - from W.A.S.P. to nicotine pouches - "One day I want to quit nicotine as well"

Håkan Friedrich - After 40 years he switched to e-cigs and nicotine packs'

Miirza Kadovic - e-cigs - Same feeling with coffee - but better for health and cheaper

Kent Andreasson - Doing well without cigarettes - but not snus?

Amanda Seguel - She is not worried about nicotine addiction

IQOS helped her stop buying cigarettes.

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