Last Thursday I finally met with the lobbyists from the organisation Smoke Free Partnership, which is very active lobbying in the European parliament to keep the ban on snus in the EU outside Sweden.
Regular readers of this blog will know that this in itself represents an achievement. Normally lobbyists in Brussels are very keen to meet members of the parliament, in particular members that will be working on dossiers that the lobbyists are interested in. But not the anti-snus lobby.
I sent an invitation by email, repeated it on the blog, sent more emails, renewed the invitation publicly, until I finally managed to get a meeting (which was then cancelled and moved to a later date). But last Thursday, I finally got the meeting I had been asking for.
Smoke Free Partnership was represented by two lobbyists, but it was one of them, whom I have previously heard speaking at seminars inside the parliament, who did almost all of the talking.
I started out immediately by asking the question that I would honestly want to hear their answer to:
– You accept nicotine patches and gums and similar products (although they are not healthy in themselves), because they help some people stop smoking, and therefore have a net positive health effect. Why aren’t you prepared to even discuss if snus is a product that can work in the same way, perhaps even more effectively than the currently available products, and help save lives by helping people stop smoking?
I received no answer at all to this question during the 35 minute meeting, although I repeated it a number of times.
The anti-snus lobbyist said that harm reduction was not her priority, so she would not answer that question.
I said that for me, the primary goal of the tobacco directive should be to reduce the harm caused by tobacco by fact based policies. (This should have been a safe bet, as it is more or less a quote from the directive itself, which talks about ”a high level of protection of health […] based on scientific facts”). Didn’t she agree with that?
No, harm reduction was not one of her priorities, she said.
From this point, we never really got any further in our discussion.
To be fair to the lobbyist, I want to stress that I am sure she was using and understanding the term ”harm reduction” in the more narrow sense of reducing harm among people who are already smoking, as opposed to reduction of the harm caused in total in society. Her priority was to reduce harm by preventing non-smokers, in particular young ones, from starting to smoke.
This is of course a goal that both I and everybody else agrees with. Everybody agrees that smoking is really dangerous for the health, and that the best way of preventing smoking related diseases is to prevent people, in particular young ones, from starting to smoke in the first place.
This is the primary focus of the revision of the tobacco directive, and quite rightly so. I am confident that there will be a large consensus in the parliament about this.
But I am also concerned about helping current smokers quit, or reduce their smoking. What works is different for different people. Nicotine gums and patches work for some smokers, so it is a good thing that they are available throughout Europe for those who are helped by them.
The experience from Sweden shows that snus is helpful to some people — quite a lot of people, actually — so that they can stop smoking. Sweden has the lowest rates of smoking related diseases in the EU among men (snus is primarily used by men in Sweden), because we have the lowest rate of smoking.
There is strong scientific evidence that relaxing the current restrictions on the sale of snus is more likely to produce a net benefit than harm.
Why are neither the anti-snus lobbyists nor the Commission prepared to even discuss this?
I find this very frustrating, so I throw the question open. Is there anybody out there who is prepared to answer the question that Smoke Free Partnership refused to answer?
Why do you want to ban snus but allow nicotine patches, when there is evidence that snus helps more people stop smoking, and has a net health benefit on the population?
Since I am the shadow rapporteur for the Green group for the tobacco directive in the Internal Market Committee IMCO, I really honestly would want an answer from somebody who wants to maintain the ban on snus.
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.