Swedish Women Get Hooked on Snus, Letting Lips Bulge

dataLouise Lennersten wasn’t going to let pregnancy make her kick a snuff habit.

The 26-year-old Swede switched to Onico, a nicotine-free brand that uses flavored vegetable fibers to imitate the taste of tobacco. Following the birth of her son Wilmer last month, she intends to return to real snuff, called snus in Sweden.

“I was a smoker but switched to snus when my job didn’t allow smoke breaks,” Lennersten said. “This way I could get my nicotine fix without going outside.”

Women are breaking into a smokeless bastion of male tobacco culture in Sweden, one of the few places where more women smoke than men. A public smoking ban, unpleasantly cold outdoor cigarette breaks in winter, and marketing by industry leader Swedish Match AB have led more women to try sucking on packets of snus for a nicotine fix.

Daily snus use among women rose to 4 percent of the total in 2007 from 0.6 percent in 1988 and 1989, national statistics show. One fifth of Sweden’s 1.2 million snus users are female, Swedish Match says. The company estimates the Scandinavian market in 2008 was about 240 million cans of snus, with a retail value of more than 8 billion kronor ($870 million).

Snus is pasteurized tobacco that usually comes in a pouch resembling a small teabag placed under the upper lip, seeping nicotine and flavors such as licorice or whiskey into the gums.

Discarded snus bags litter Stockholm’s bars and streets. A can of snus pouches retails for 35 kronor to 39 kronor, while loose snus may cost about 49 kronor, the same as a pack of cigarettes in Sweden.

Cigarette Substitute

“We’re seeing more and more women using snus as a substitute for cigarettes,” Lars Rutqvist, head of Stockholm- based Swedish Match’s scientific affairs, said in an interview. “We’re seeing the same phenomenon as we saw for men in the 1970s. It’s mainly among young women. Parallel to that, we see a decrease in smoking prevalence rates.”

The European Union bans snus in most of its member states for health reasons, such as the risk that the product may be an easier gateway than cigarettes for young people to get hooked on tobacco products. Sweden got an exemption from the ban when it joined the bloc in 1995. The only other legal market in western Europe for the product is Norway.

Heavy use of snus can cause teeth to stain. Worse, an EU report last year found snus is addictive and may cause pancreatic cancer, though it said that unlike other types of snuff, a link to oral cancer hasn’t been proven.

Blue Collar

For decades, snus was the stuff of blue-collar Swedes, who appreciated being able to keep their hands free at work and still get a nicotine buzz. Swedes started grinding tobacco and mixing it with water, salt and spices in the 1800s.

Sweden doubled the tax on snus in January 2007, levying about 8 kronor on a can of snus that retails for 35 kronor. That helped push down demand. Swedish Match sold 12 percent fewer cans of snus in Scandinavia in the fourth quarter.

Still, at an operating margin of 44.1 percent last year, snus was more than twice as profitable for Swedish Match as cigars, the company’s second-largest business line by sales.

Nordic taxes and the EU ban mean Swedish Match and snuff rivals including British American Tobacco Plc need new markets. The search for potential consumers has prompted Swedish Match to announce a venture with Philip Morris International Inc., the world’s largest publicly traded tobacco company. PMI was spun off from former parent Altria Group last year, following pressure from investors who wanted faster, non-U.S. growth.

Cancer Rates

Swedish Match contends that its home nation’s cancer rate has fallen because of snus, and has won some support from local politicians. The ban on snuff exports to other EU nations is “absurd” and should be abolished, Trade Minister Ewa Bjoerling said in an opinion piece on Nov. 28 in newspaper Aftonbladet.

Snus is at least 50 percent less likely to lead to heart disease than cigarettes, and unlikely to lead to lung cancer, the EU committee report found. However, the World Health Organization has said all forms of tobacco products are “addictive, harmful and can cause death,” and it would need more studies on health implications of snus before making new recommendations on its use, according to spokesman Tim O’Leary.

With a 16 percent smoking rate, Sweden has the lowest percentage of people consuming cigarettes in western Europe, according to WHO statistics. About a quarter of all men in Sweden consume snus daily, the Swedish Institute of Public Health estimated in a study in 2005.

“It’s more of a manly product,” Rutqvist said. “If you use the traditional products, you get this bulge on the upper lip, which is not considered attractive by women.”

Bulging Lips

Swedish Match has addressed the bulge with smaller snus pouches marketed toward women, packaged in more feminine colors than the traditional black, brown and silver containers favored by men. Snus is sold at convenience stores, bars, and supermarkets, and the legal consumption age in Sweden is 18.

“When the trend started, women bought the smaller portions, but now most everyone uses the regular size,” said Lina Hellgren, 25, proprietor of a 7-Eleven store in Stockholm, who has consumed snus for nine years. The number of women buying snus has been “tremendous” in the last two years, she said.

Not all of Swedish Match’s attempts to market snus to women have been successful. Vertigo snus, which came in deep red, hourglass-shaped cans, flopped with buyers and was discontinued.

“This is a long-term trend,” said Martin Sikorski, an analyst at Credit Agricole Cheuvreux. “It took Swedish Match a decade to convince about 5 percent of Swedish women to switch from cigarettes to snus.”

Among the converted, Lennersten said one major advantage of snus is that it doesn’t make clothes smell of smoke.

“Just remember to brush your teeth a lot, otherwise you’ll look like an old hag,” she said.

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