In light lobbying by transnational tobacco companies to remove the European Union ban on the sale of snus (a smokeless tobacco product), Silvy Peeters and Anna Gilmore explore the motivation behind tobacco companies' interests in smokeless tobacco products in Europe.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
European Union (EU) legislation bans the sale of snus, a smokeless tobacco (SLT) which is considerably less harmful than smoking, in all EU countries other than Sweden. To inform the current review of this legislation, this paper aims to explore transnational tobacco company (TTC) interests in SLT and pure nicotine in Europe from the 1970s to the present, comparing them with TTCs' public claims of support for harm reduction.
Methods and Results
Internal tobacco industry documents (in total 416 documents dating from 1971 to 2009), obtained via searching the online Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, were analysed using a hermeneutic approach. This library comprises documents obtained via litigation in the US and does not include documents from Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, or Swedish Match. To help overcome this limitation and provide more recent data, we triangulated our documentary findings with contemporary documentation including TTC investor presentations. The analysis demonstrates that British American Tobacco explored SLT opportunities in Europe from 1971 driven by regulatory threats and health concerns, both likely to impact cigarette sales negatively, and the potential to create a new form of tobacco use among those no longer interested in taking up smoking. Young people were a key target. TTCs did not, however, make SLT investments until 2002, a time when EU cigarette volumes started declining, smoke-free legislation was being introduced, and public health became interested in harm reduction. All TTCs have now invested in snus (and recently in pure nicotine), yet both early and recent snus test markets appear to have failed, and little evidence was found in TTCs' corporate materials that snus is central to their business strategy.
There is clear evidence that BAT's early interest in introducing SLT in Europe was based on the potential for creating an alternative form of tobacco use in light of declining cigarette sales and social restrictions on smoking, with young people a key target. We conclude that by investing in snus, and recently nicotine, TTCs have eliminated competition between cigarettes and lower-risk products, thus helping maintain the current market balance in favour of (highly profitable) cigarettes while ensuring TTCs' long-term future should cigarette sales decline further and profit margins be eroded.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every year, about 5 million people die from cancer, heart disease, and other tobacco-related diseases. In recent years, to reduce this growing loss of life, international and national bodies have drawn up various tobacco control conventions and directives. For example, the European Union (EU) Directives on tobacco control call for member states to ban tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship and to adopt taxation policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption. The 2001 EU Tobacco Products Directive also bans the sale of snus, a form of smokeless tobacco (SLT), in all EU countries except Sweden. Snus, which originated in Sweden in the early 19th century, is a moist tobacco product that is placed under the upper lip. Although snus is considerably less harmful than smoking, the sale of snus was banned in the EU in 1992 because of fears that it might cause cancer and was being marketed to young people. When Sweden joined the EU in 1994, exemption from the ban was made a condition of the membership treaty.
Why Was This Study Done?
Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have been investing in European snus manufacturers since 2002 and more recently in pure nicotine products, and it has been suggested that, faced with declining cigarette markets in Europe and elsewhere, TTCs are preparing for a “post-cigarette era”. Since 2008, TTCs have been lobbying EU member states and the European Commission to remove the ban on snus sales, arguing that public health would be improved if governments allowed potentially reduced-harm products like snus onto the market. At the end of 2012, however, the European Commission proposed that the ban on snus sales should be continued. Here, to help inform this controversial policy debate, the researchers explore the interest of TTCs in SLT and pure nicotine in Europe from the 1970s to the present by examining internal tobacco documents and compare these interests with public claims of support for harm reduction made by TTCs.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
By searching the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library (internal tobacco industry documents released following US litigation cases), the researchers identified 416 documents that detail the historical interest of TTCs in SLT and pure nicotine and their efforts to enter European markets, and to influence national and EU public-health policy. The researchers analyzed these documents using a “hermeneutic” approach—methodical reading and re-reading of the documents to identify themes and sub-themes. Finally, they used TTC investor presentations and other documents to confirm these themes and to provide recent data on TTC investment in SLT. British American Tobacco (BAT) explored the opportunities for marketing SLT products in Europe from 1971 onwards. This exploration was driven by regulatory threats and health concerns, both of which were likely to impact tobacco sales, and by the potential to create a new form of tobacco use among people no longer interested in taking up smoking. TTCs did not begin to invest in SLT, however, until 2002, a time when EU cigarette sale volumes started to decline, smoke-free legislation was being introduced, and tobacco harm reduction first became a major public-health issue. All the TTCs have now invested in snus even though snus test markets appear to have failed and even though there is little evidence in corporate materials that snus is central to the business strategy of TTCs.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that BAT's early interest in SLT in Europe was driven by business concerns and was based on the potential for creating an alternative form of tobacco use among people—particularly young people—who would no longer take up smoking because of health concerns. They also suggest that TTC investments in snus were defensive—by buying up snus manufacturers and more recently nicotine producers, TTCs have eliminated competition between cigarettes and lower-risk products, thereby helping to maintain the current market balance in favor of cigarettes while ensuring the long-term future of TTCs should cigarette sales decline further. Although these findings are limited by the possibility that some relevant documents may have been omitted from this analysis, they nevertheless raise the concern that, if TTC investment in SLT continues, competition between cigarettes and SLT will reduce the potential for harm reduction to benefit public health. Legalization of snus sales in the European Union may therefore have considerably less benefit than envisaged.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001506.
The World Health Organization provides information about the dangers of tobacco (in several languages) and about the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty for tobacco control; for information about the tobacco industry's influence on policy, see the 2009 World Health Organization report Tobacco interference with tobacco control
Details of European Union legislation on the manufacture, presentation, and sale of tobacco products is available (in several languages)
Wikipedia has pages on tobacco harm reduction and on snus (note: Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library is a searchable public database of tobacco company internal documents detailing their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific activities
The UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies is a network of UK universities that undertakes original research, policy development, advocacy, and teaching and training in the field of tobacco control
SmokeFree, a website provided by the UK National Health Service, offers advice on quitting smoking and includes personal stories from people who have stopped smoking
Smokefree.gov, from the US National Cancer Institute, offers online tools and resources to help people quit smoking
TobaccoTactics.org, an online resource managed by the University of Bath, provides up-to-date information on the tobacco industry and their tactics to influence tobacco regulation