(This is a translation of an article in Swedish)
Before he resigned in a corruption scandal over the Swedish traditional smoke-free tobacco product snus, ex-commissioner John Dalli drafted a revision of the tobacco products directive, which the European Commission has now presented.
The draft directive contains a continued ban on the sale of snus outside Sweden (Sweden has a permanent exception to this ban), and a ban on flavours like eucalyptus and mint in any tobacco products (including snus sold in Sweden). It also contains a ban on the electronic cigarettes that are beginning to come to the market.
None of these policies make any sense.
I use snus, and I think it’s inconvenient and idiotic that I can’t buy snus when I’m in Brussels or Strasbourg, when I can buy both cigarettes (that are far more harmful to my health) and most other kinds of smokeless tobacco, even though Swedish snus is less harmful that these as well. But the issue is not whether it would be convenient for Swedes to be able to buy snus in Europe if they have forgotten to bring a few boxes from home.
From a Pirate Party perspective, there are three important aspects:
– The Fight Against Corruption
The Commissioner responsible for drafting the tobacco directive, John Dalli, demanded through an intermediary that snus manufacturer Swedish Match should pay a bribe of 60 million euro to get the ban on snus lifted. When Swedish Match refused, and instead reported it to the EU anti-corruption bureau OLAF, OLAF did an investigation and gave it to the president of the European Commission Mr. Barroso. Barroso read the report, called a meeting with Dalli, and had Dalli resign with immediate effect.
So for in the story is as it should be in the fight against corruption in the EU. Swedish Match acted in an exemplary manner when they reported the corruption instead of just accepting it as a cost of doing business and paying (which would possibly have been the most profitable thing to do from a strict business perspective). President Barroso also acted in an exemplary manner when he immediately fired Dalli after he had read the report that proved that Dalli had tried to solicit bribes.
But after this, things have gone wrong in the European Commission’s handling of the case. First, Barroso has kept the report from the anti-corruption bureau OLAF secret. This has given Dalli and those who have an interest in denying the corruption the chance to spread rumors about what really happened, and these rumors have been allowed to spread unopposed. Presidet Barroso should make the OLAF report public immediately, to defend both his own reputation and that of his commission. As usual, more transparency by the European Commission is needed.
But second, and perhaps even more importantly, the commission has done nothing at all to assess how Dalli’s corruption affected the contents of the tobacco directive. Instead, the commission has put all its efforts into rushing the directive though as quickly as possible in the shape that Dalli wanted it, including the ban on snus. What signal does this send to other companies that will come across corruption in the future, if even after the corruption has been disclosed and the corrupt official has been forced to resign, the whistle-blowing company still won’t get a fair treatment?
”Bribes are illegal, but if you don’t pay you only have yourself to blame” is the message that the European Commission is sending. If that becomes how this story ends, it will have serious consequences for the future. They all companies will know that they will only hurt themselves if they report corruption, and that the sensible thing to do is to shut up and pay.
This is not the message we should be sending.
– Evidence Based Policy Making
Nobody claims that snus is a healthy product in itself, but it is a lot less dangerous than smoking. This is something all scientific studies that compare the health effects of snus with smoking agree on. Snus has helped a lot of Swedes, especially men, to either stop smoking completely, or at least reduce their smoking significantly.
Sweden has the lowest percentage of smokers among men in Europe. This has led to Swedish men having the lowest mortality rate in cardiovascular deceases and lung cancer caused by smoking.
Smokers who try to quit by switching to snus have a higher success rate than those who try using other nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine patches or chewing gum.
An article in the medical research journal The Lancet summarizes:
Current smokers who switch to using snus rather than continuing to smoke can realise substantial health gains. Snus could produce a net benefit to health at the population level if it is adopted in sufficient numbers by inveterate smokers. Relaxing current restrictions on the sale of snus is more likely to produce a net benefit than harm, with the size of the benefit dependent on how many inveterate smokers switch to snus.
The European Commission completely ignores this. It doesn’t really matter whether the reason is corruption, lobbyism, or just a lack of interests in facts within this part of the commission — the end result is in any case that we get a policy based on special interests and moralistic ideology rather than facts and medical science.
This is diametrically opposed to all the beautiful words that the European Commission is fond of saying when they talk about ”evidence based policy making”. That evidence based policy making is particularly important on issues concerning public health is even written into the tobacco directive itself. But this principle is not applied in practice.
I have asked both the European Commission and the anti-snus lobbyists what scientific studies they are basing their opposition to snus on. Both have completely refused to answer. Their only interest is to push through the continued ban on snus as quickly as possible, although this policy has no support in scientific research.
– Harm Reducition for Drugs
The Swedish Pirate Party wants to decriminalize personal use and possession for all drugs, including hard drugs. Instead, we want society to use its resources on offering effective treatment to addicts who ask for it themselves. The guiding star for the policy should be harm reduction, not harassment of those unlucky enough to have ended up with an addiction, and not utopian visions of ”zero tolerance” that hurt more than they help in practice.
The same principle should apply to tobacco regulation. Everybody agrees that tobacco smoking is very harmful to health, and in a perfect world nobody would smoke. When tobacco is burning in a cigarette hundreds of harmful substances are released, and the smoke harms both lungs and heart. But although all smokers are fully aware of this, and many would want to stop smoking, many who try have a hard time getting rid of their nicotine addiction.
Snus is a tobacco product, and it contains nicotine, but it is between 90 and 99 per cent less dangerous than cigarettes. Every smoker who succeeds in giving up smoking by switching to snus recieves a great health benefit. Not using anything at all is of course the best, but it is hard to stop smoking, and most smokers fail when they try to stop ”cold turkey”.
The experience from Sweden shows that snus gives many smokers a way out from cigarette addiction. This is something positive for public health, and something the EU should learn from instead of trying to ban. The only responsible tobacco policy goal is to try to save lives.
In Sweden, many men have saved their lives by switching to snus, but fewer women, since snus use is not as common among women yet. Traditionally, snus was a product that was used by men, and many women find the traditional snus flavours unpleasant.
For this reason it is a positive thing that snus manufacturers are introducing alternative flavours, such as eucalyptus, mint, or licorice, to offer an alternative also to women who want to stop smoking. Banning these flavourings in tobacco products, as the tobacco directive wants, is in practice a way to make it more difficult for women who want to quit smoking. This is both unethical and stupid.
The same applies to the new electronic cigarettes that are beginning to appear on the market. Ex-commissioner Dalli’s tobacco directive want to ban electronic cigarettes as well, even though they appear to have a great potential as yet another way to escape cigarette addiction by switching to a less harmful substitute. What works and what doesn’t varies from individual to individual, so the more choices for harm reduction products smokers who want to quit have, the more will succeed in the end.
Ideologically motivated ”zero tolerance” is just cynical when it leads to people dying unnecessarily in practice. Public health policy should not be decided by who has the least tolerance, but by what saves lives.
Declaration of interest: I am a snus user, which has allowed me to cut down my smoking drastically, even though I have not stopped completely yet. My wife used to smoke, but gave it up completely several years ago by switching to eucalyptus flavoured snus.
Picture by Christian Engström, free for publication Creative Commons CC0