Author: Brian Newsome

Sweden brought us meatballs, the Nobel prize, Ikea, the Saab and the Volvo. But the country’s latest mark on the U.S. is not so benign. An oral tobacco product known as snus recently arrived in Colorado Springs and other U.S. towns.

The moist tobacco, which comes in a tea-bag-style pouch that goes under the upper lip, has public health experts divided. Some say snus (rhymes with loose) could save scores of lives if smokers switch to it, because the product contains far fewer carcinogens than do cigarettes, chew and snuff.

Critics, though, say snus will only increase the number of people addicted to nicotine and poses a serious threat to anti-tobacco efforts. They say it could create a new crop of young nicotine addicts, while smokers could just as easily supplement their habit rather than substitute one for the other.

Some Americans have been using snus by ordering it online or buying it in U.S. test markets, but R.J. Reynolds Tobacco didn’t release Camel Snus nationally until a few weeks ago, the first and only major tobacco company to do so. Philip Morris is selling Marlboro Snus in test markets.

In Sweden, nearly a fifth of men in 2007 said they used snus daily, compared with 12 percent who smoke, according to Swedish Match, the country’s largest snus producer. The trend doesn’t hold for Swedish women: just 4 percent use snus and 16 percent smoke.

Sweden also has fewer cases of lung cancer than the rest of Europe.

Advocates of snus say it deserves at least some of the credit for the relatively low lung cancer rate, and they argue for its legitimacy as a tool to fight smoking.

So far, major studies have not found a measurable risk of oral or lung cancer from snus, although one did find a higher risk of pancreatic cancer among snus users compared to people who never used tobacco.

Although the cancer risks appear to be low, nicotine levels in the bloodstream from snus are comparable to other tobaccos. And there lies the rub.

Everyone agrees nicotine is extremely addictive. But some health experts believe that nicotine does not pose a serious health threat without the thousands of other chemical compounds in cigarettes. Cigarettes contain about 60 cancer-causing substances, according to the National Cancer Institute. Oral tobaccos contain carcinogens known as nitrosamines, but snus has few of these.

Still, doctors and public health officials don’t encourage non-users to start, because nicotine raises blood pressure and affects the cardiovascular system. But they say a switch from smoking would dramatically lower the health risks from cigarettes. Not all smokers are willing to give up nicotine altogether, the thinking goes, so they’d be better off opting for the lesser of two evils. And many cigarette smokers might be more likely to switch to snus than pay for costly cessation tools like nicotine gum or the patch.

Others counter that snus, especially if marketed as a safe product, could be disastrous in the fight against tobacco addiction. They especially fear snus’ potential popularity among teens. The Kansas City Star reported that teens are using snus during class, because it’s easily concealable and there’s no need to spit. Camel Snus comes in flavors named “frost” and “mellow” and is sold in flashy metal tins.

“It’s going to be much easier to sneak around in schools,” said Joy Clark, a community health coordinator for the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment who runs a tobacco education program for children and teens and has been educating students about snus.

Indeed, marketing materials are playing up the concealable aspect of the tobacco and its novelty. R.J. Reynolds’ tins say “Pleasure for wherever.”

R.J. Reynolds spokesman David P. Howard said the company is not marketing snus to children, and its flavors are very much “tobacco” and not meant to be candy-like.

Whether the product will catch on in Colorado Springs is yet to be seen.

A clerk at a Seven-11 on West Colorado Avenue said people initially began inquiring about Camel Snus two weeks before it came out, then sales quickly trailed off. Down the road, at Smoker City, co-owner Harry Chanda said he’s sold one or two tins a week since he began selling it about three weeks ago.

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