Snus in Scandinavia


I sat down in a meeting room at my office, waiting for the new employee who just joined my team to come in for an introductory one-on-one. She came in, said hello and set down her mobile phone and the telltale round plastic container that can only be one thing – snus.

Snus, for the uninitiated is, smokeless tobacco. Unlike loose chewing tobacco, snus is contained in wee little packets that look like very small teabags.

snus packets

snus packets

The stuff is illegal throughout the European Union – but it’s still legal and highly popular in Norway and Sweden. In Sweden, it’s quite serious business. Back in 1995 when Sweden was poised to join the European Union, the country received an exemption to the smokeless-tobacco-product ban, with some saying that Sweden would have reconsidered EU membership had the exemption not been granted. (The same 2008 WSJ article cites a Swedish member of the European Parliament, Christofer Fjellner, who is selling snus illegally from his office in Brussels as a kind of act of civil disobedience. Fjellner is, according to a 2012 article from The Independent, still at it.)

A similar state of affairs (that is, treating snus as life or death) exists in Norway (Norway is a snus-loving, non-EU country). Several years ago, a former friend in Norway had gone on holiday to Italy with her boyfriend, and the boyfriend was mostly excited about the prospect because it meant he could stock up on snus at the airport duty-free. When the couple had their luggage, passports and tickets stolen, his snus was also stolen. As my friend was phoning the embassy and trying to get things under control, her boyfriend was calling his friends, lamenting the loss of his case of snus. That should tell you about how seriously these people take snus. You’d think the theft of snus was the end of the world.

Perhaps for those legality reasons and the fact that snus is not present anywhere else, I never had a clue how unrelenting and ubiquitous this stuff was until I moved to Scandinavia. Men particularly never go anywhere without it, and switch out the little tobacco packets right in the middle of important meetings, discarding the used packets on the edges of plates or cups or scrap paper. It’s still vulgar and crass to me – but I’ve more or less gotten used to it among men. But women – even though I know they also use snus – and that there are brands and flavors specifically made for and marketed to women – still surprise me as avid users. And even those who use are not generally so dependent that they turn up to meetings with the container of snus in tow, as my new colleague did. (Another colleague saw the snus container our new colleague carries as cause to laugh – she loves it when people do things that are mildly inappropriate.)

It may be an exaggeration to say that I “got used to it”. It is just something I accept, as I dodge all the used little packets strewn across city sidewalks in Gothenburg… and try my best to overlook the used, dried-up packets people leave on the edge of dirty dishes. I am still struggling to find out how it is so widespread that it is acceptable to use all the time. Somehow I feel as though tobacco products should be reserved for breaks – go outside or at least don’t be digging around your gums in the middle of business meetings. Couldn’t it be a bit more… subtle and discreet?

In truth, I should not complain. I would prefer the snus habit to smoking – particularly as statistics on the matter show that “the risk of dying from a tobacco-related illness, such as lung or oral cancer is substantially lower in Sweden than in any other European country” – which is thought to be because of the dominance of snus over smoking.

Tobacco use in Sweden*

Tobacco use in Sweden*

I think the disposal aspect of both smoking and snus packets is most disturbing – I don’t want cigarette butts OR snus pouches littering the sidewalks. I want litter to be disposed of properly no matter what it is.

The world is not anyone’s garbage can or ashtray.