The social democratic opposition to harm minimisation and new nicotine products is very clear. Nonetheless, it is a curious opposition. Smoking is a class issue. It is the socio-economically vulnerable who smoke the most - more well-educated Swedes snuff or vape. During Almedalen Week, Vejpkollen met Karin Sundin, newly appointed spokesperson for the Swedish Socialist Party (S) on health issues in the Social Affairs Committee. It went like that, you could say.
"You know you are bought by the tobacco industry, right?"
Karin Sundin is annoyed. "As always, I find it difficult to know whether it's personal or just political when a politician snaps at you. Some politicians are just like that, at least the first time you meet them. However, there is no doubt that she has strong views on issues related to nicotine, tobacco, snus, e-cigarettes and tobacco companies. She has recently replaced Yasmine Bladelius as spokesperson on health issues for the Social Democrats in the Social Affairs Committee.
That's why I approached her after a debate in Almedalen, on this summer day in a sweltering Visby. I wanted to introduce myself, say hello and ask for contact details for possible future interviews.
An ideological dance
Just a few minutes earlier, she was on stage and basically dissed the whole idea of harm minimisation for smokers. She called snus and nicotine pouches dangerous products that no one really needs. The rating for e-cigs was not very flattering either.
"E-cigarettes are completely unnecessary products, they should not be allowed to be sold at all," said Ms Sundin to applause from Helen Stjerna, Secretary General of the European Commission. Non Smoking Generation, and state-funded lobby group whose message is more or less exactly the same as Karin Sundin's. Or perhaps on the contrary; the influence of lobby groups is often entangled in an ideological dance where political engagement is based on a consensus between different interests on how to think about different issues. All in order to favour each other. A bit like the chicken and the egg.
E-cigs are nonsense
Karin Sundin was to discuss "the Swedish nicotine model" together with a calm and slightly long-haired doctor from Linköping, a psychologist known from the podcast sphere and an environmentalist from, well, I don't know. It went like that. Finding Consensus on the issue of nicotine is probably impossible in today's Sweden.
"In my opinion, there is no Swedish nicotine model. It is just about dealing with unnecessary products whose only purpose is to entice children to become addicted to nicotine." Karin Sundin said angrily.
"But young people are going to do a lot of shit no matter what we think, and it's better for them to get into snus and e-cigarettes than to smoke, I think," the psychologist said in broad Scanian.
"Nicotine, especially in oral form, is actually quite mild on the body. Slightly higher cortisol levels, but nothing serious really, like caffeine," added the doctor, who took the opportunity to check how nicotine affected a group of subjects who were going to test how alcohol affects appetite chemically. They alternated snus with wine for a few hours in the lab and the doctor measured a lot.
An interesting report for those who wish to read more about nicotine, perhaps?
Karin Sundin did not think so.
"It's all rubbish" she exclaimed and the Non Smoking Generation applauded again. Even cheered a little. Wohoo.
Disaster spells 'snus'
Afterwards, Karin Sundin ended up on a bench in the shade. A bit symbolic, perhaps. And not just politically, as a majority in the Swedish Parliament is now in favour of behind a more injury-minimising line in both the Social Affairs Committee and the Parliament as a whole. The heatwave in Almedalen was also soon followed by the news that the new government reduce the tax on snus and at the same time raises it for cigarettes. Ms Sundin was, of course, among those who called the decision a "disaster".
"It is smarter to take a chewing gum instead, if you want to quit smoking," she said in a comment on her public Facebook page.
Pfizer or some other pharmaceutical company could not have formulated it better, I think. Stop smoking with a toy, as it were.
Vejpshop? What is it?
I asked her, there in Almedalen, if she knew anything about the lesser-known, but nonetheless widespread one, independent part of the road transport market. Those who live a life of their own beyond snuff and disposable models, in the form of local vape shops, closed forums on social media and in magazines such as Vejpkollen?
It didn't quite work out.
"What is a vejpshop?" Karin Sundin asked.
Asked instead if she had ever smoked herself?
"Oh," she said. It was something you did in your teens perhaps. No problem to stop" she said morosely.
The weak nicotine user
That particular attitude is very common among anti-tobacco activistsI have noticed. That it is actually "quite easy to stop - if you want to". Those who do not succeed are simply not strong enough. A bit weak, perhaps?
This is an issue that has never really taken root in the ideologically motivated anti-tobacco movement. The view of people as victims is very important. It fits into the picture of the fight against the "eternal enemy"... the tobacco company - the last hope on earth - luring the mob with dangerous pleasures at the cost of your dirty soul.
HEROIN! KNARK! CHILD!
Now I sound like another social democrat, I realise. Stig-Björn Ljunggren, editorial writer for the newspaper Sydöstran, summarised the Social Democratic opposition to nicotine in a similar way. A resistance that is almost religious.
"They basically say that nicotine is as addictive as HEROIN. That's the argument you live on. HEROIN! DRUG! CHILD! Who wants to have a public discussion with someone who uses such arguments?" said the cigar-loving Stig-Björn Ljunggren during one of the discussions. during the Almedalen week.
"You favour the tobacco companies"
That e-cigs does not contain tobacco is therefore quite irrelevant for politicians like Karin Sundin. That vape shops sell e-cigs that help people stop smoking is as bad as a drug dealer selling methadone to a heroin addict. No matter that the basic business concept of the companies that live on e-cigarettes is to steal customers from the tobacco companies - by enticing them with a rather good alternative to cigarettes.
Karin Sundin puts it quite concretely.
"But where does the nicotine come from? The tobacco companies, right! You, no YOU, are fuelling them! Do you think that's ok?"
Somewhere there the conversation became absurd. We were talking about synthetic nicotine, I think. About user perspectives, my grandmother and her pointless nicotine gum that never worked. I do not know. It was not a fruitful conversation.
Nicotine addict = Socialist voter?
The Social Democrats are a party where the attitude towards harm minimisation (i.e. "nonsense") is polished on the outside but very rough underneath. And if you think about it: How many members of Metall do not snuff? How many Social Democrat-voting nurses use nicotine pouches to keep themselves smoke-free during breaks? How many stressed-out home care workers have taken their last drag on a cigarette after accidentally stumbling across a sugar-sweet disposable wipe in the convenience store? Not too damn few, I'd say. Not so damn few.
Cannon fodder in the debate
But according to Karin Sundin, it does not matter whether someone chooses to vape, snuff or smoke. It doesn't matter whether a nurse buys the nicotine in a small vape shop in Borlänge or directly from the Philip Morris IQOS shop in Östermalm. Everyone is a follower, and our life choices are worth about nothing, except as cannon fodder in the debate on nicotine use and children as thieving couples.
This should of course make the issue of nicotine and nicotine use very relevant, and very personal, to all users throughout Sweden. Not least among social democrats.
The question is also how long interest groups such as Non Smoking Generation, Hjärt-Lungfonden and Tobaksfakta will manage to create new social democratic megaphones that angrily convey their message of a nicotine-free (not just smoke-free) Sweden in the plenary hall of the Social Affairs Committee. How long will it be before someone in the deeper ranks speaks out, seriously?
Sundin is still on the bench as I hurry on to the next meeting, somewhere in a narrow Visby alley, where some harm reduction enthusiasts have gathered to discuss the future of nicotine pouches and e-cigs at EU level. Karin Sundin is not invited, if I am to interpret the signals correctly.
It is a balancing act to work as a journalist on an issue that affects you as much as it affects thousands of people in our country. Interest groups on the right and the left lobby like crazy, they use journalists for one thing and another, just like in any economically significant market. I myself am a road user, and perhaps above all a former smoker. I have my own views on how politics and debate in society affect other users. For me, and for the content of Vejpkollen, it is crucial that all voices are heard, not least from us users, i.e. those who actually do not smoke anymore.
And somewhere I hope that Karin Sundin, at some point in the future, took the time to, at least a little bit, listen to our version of what is happening, listen to our stories. Because the nicotine debate is neither black nor white, and users have quite concrete ideas about how to relate to old and new nicotine products. We are who we are, even if Karin Sundin thinks that our life choices are "silly".
Having said that.