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Campaigners who want to relax the Europe-wide ban on snus, an oral tobacco, have succeeded in formally asking the European Commission to investigate whether its use could help people to stop smoking.
MEPs called on the commission on 24 October “to investigate the health risks associated with consumption of snus and its impact on the consumption of cigarettes” as part of a wide ranging strategy towards a smoke-free Europe.
The tobacco has been banned throughout the European Union since 1992 and is only allowed in Sweden, where it is so much a part of national culture that the government negotiated a specific exemption when the country joined the European Union.
Liz Lynn, the British Liberal Democrat MEP who led the call for the new investigation, explained, “Snus may be one of the possible ways of ensuring a smoke-free environment and help people to quit smoking. But there are still risks and it is important that the EU investigates these fully.”
A founding member of the “MEPs against cancer” group in the European parliament, Mrs Lynn recently hosted a meeting to take evidence from experts on the risks of certain types of smokeless tobacco. Afterwards she said, “No one is saying that snus is in any way good for you. It may cause a variety of cancers. But it is suspected that Sweden's low cancer mortality may be connected to its use as people make the switch from cigarettes.”
Her Swedish Conservative colleague, Christofer Fjellner, a confirmed snus user, argues for a complete lifting of the ban. “If you take snus, you do not have normal cancer effects. Sweden consumes about the same amount of tobacco as elsewhere in Europe, but in a different way.”
The latest move comes just three weeks after British American Tobacco publicly pressed European regulators to reconsider the ban. The company currently has about 10% of the Swedish snus market and is running pilot projects in South Africa and Canada.
In its first European corporate social responsibility report, British American Tobacco maintained that snus offered an alternative to smoking and pledged to be “an active contributor to the snus debate by seeking to raise EU decision makers' awareness of the potential health benefits of snus use when compared to smoking.”
The latest moves are alarming many in the health profession. The BMA is firmly behind the ban. “As doctors, we could not back a product that causes mouth and throat cancer. It may be less harmful than tobacco, but it still causes fatal illnesses, including cancer and heart disease,” it said.
British American Tobacco's initiative prompted the Brussels based Pharmaceutical Group of the European Union to state, “Relegalising snus would keep people addicted to tobacco products and undermine health initiatives by confusing consumers about the risks associated with tobacco use.”