• 5/29/2005
  • Stockholm, Sweden
  • Ivar Eckman
  • New York Times

Sweden is a few days from joining the select group of European countries that have banned smoking in restaurants and bars. But unlike Ireland, where the ban upset pub owners, or Italy, where cappuccino drinkers complained about having to smoke outdoors, no one here expects the June 1 event to be met with much protest.

The main reason for this indifference is a four-letter word: snus. A moist, finely minced snuff tobacco inserted under the upper lip, snus is the Swedish alternative to cigarettes.

The substance, which is prohibited in the rest of the European Union (Sweden got an exemption when it joined in 1995), has been used widely here for almost two centuries, and has grown in popularity in recent years. More than a million Swedes use it, and as smoking is banned in eating and drinking establishments, snus (pronounced snoos) is expected to become even more popular.

“Historically, we’ve seen a lot of smokers switching to snus,” said Sven Hindrikes, chief of Swedish Match, which made 95 percent of the almost 200 million cans of snus sold last year. “If you’re not allowed to smoke in restaurants, it will have a positive effect on our sales.”

Swedish Match has been preparing for two years to take advantage of the smoking ban. New custom-made refrigerators and vending machines have been offered to restaurant and bar owners, and a sleek black “snustray” has been designed to replace ashtrays. (Because snus use stimulates saliva production much less than other forms of snuff and chewing tobacco, spittoons are not being introduced.)

Blue Moon Bar, a popular nightclub in central Stockholm, is one of the places where snus is expected to replace cigarettes. A new vending machine selling snus has been put up next to the old cigarette machine, with another soon to follow, and snustrays have begun to appear on top of the bar, the manager, Olle Tejle, said.

Beyond trying to make snus more appealing, Swedish Match is promoting its relative health benefits compared with other tobacco products. “If you ask people who have stopped smoking in Sweden, the biggest group says they have used snus as the main aid in quitting,” Mr. Hindrikes said. This claim appears to be backed by World Health Organization data showing that Sweden has one of the lowest levels of smoking among adults in Europe. The data also show that Swedes – especially men, among whom snus use is particularly widespread – run a comparatively low risk of dying of smoking-related diseases like tracheal, bronchial and lung cancer, though per capita consumption of all forms of tobacco matches that of most of the rest of Europe.

But Swedish health care groups are hardly prepared to embrace snus. “In a sense, all things you compare with smoking unavoidably look quite healthy because it’s such an extremely dangerous habit,” said Margaretha Haglund, who specializes in tobacco policy at the National Institute of Public Health in Stockholm. “Recommending snus to a smoker is a little like telling an alcoholic that it’s O.K. to shift from vodka to wine.”

The health effects of snus are in dispute. No conclusive study has shown that it causes cancer, even if the W.H.O. has found that smokeless tobacco in general causes oral cancer and possibly pancreatic cancer.

Swedish Match maintains that the Swedish snus is less dangerous than other forms of smokeless tobacco, mainly because it contains relatively low levels of carcinogenic “tobacco-specific nitrosamine” substances.