Behind the reasonable arguments against the use of tobacco products regarding public and personal health, there’s been more of a political drama of sorts played out within the EU that has gathered little, if any, attention by the majority of its citizens.

As stated by the EU Commission’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD), the reasons for the ban on the import and sale of smokeless tobacco within the Schengen Area are a matter of concern for the public’s health. However, the truth behind the ban’s implementation has little, if anything, to do with alleged concerns for the public’s health by the EU Commission, but is an issue much more focused on the EU’s competitive “free-trade” that would impact the financial markets of European cigarette companies and their subsidiaries.

In a nutshell, the TPD explains the ban as follows: “The prohibition of the sale of tobacco for oral use should be maintained in order to prevent the introduction in the Union (apart from Sweden) of a product that is addictive and has adverse health effects.”

Exception to the rule

Of course, the first thing anyone who’s paying attention would take note of in that statement is why Sweden, an EU country, is an exception to the ban. The short answer is that the Swedes love their oral tobacco so much they might even consider leaving the EU if they were ever deprived of one of their simple pleasures in life, but we’ll come back to Sweden in a moment. The actual fact is that this prohibition was a response to aggressive attempts to introduce oral tobacco products by the US Smokeless Tobacco Company (UST), in partnership with British American Tobacco (BAT).

According to a peer-reviewed study from the University of Bath, these tobacco companies saw smokeless tobacco as having the potential to generate new profits within the EU market and was advertised as “the new way to enjoy tobacco”. Unfortunately, as with any potentially influential demographic for a market-driven product, the study alleges that students and young people were seen as potentially a key target and means of promotion. With this alone in mind, a pushback from the EU Commission would be reasonably expected, but it begs to question the lackadaisical response for a similar ban by the Commission with regard to the abuse of other harmful products that, intentionally or unintentionally through social media and other marketing platforms, also target young people, such as… well… cigarettes.

Money talks

Sadly, the bread and butter of the matter is that money talks, and like the gun lobby in America, special-interest groups (in this case European Tobacco Inc., a consortium of multinational cigarette companies in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East) undoubtedly have a hand in legislating profit margins over the well-being of EU citizens. According to Fortune Business Insights website, the market size for cigarettes in Europe was valued at $218.61 billion in 2018 and is projected to reach $363.30 billion by the end of 2026. In Germany alone, the website goes on to state: “The consumer base for cigarettes is rapidly increasing, which mainly includes adolescents (age range from 15 years to 20 years). Manufacturers are intensively capitalizing on premiumization of cigarettes to attract adolescents, as young people are more likely to start smoking, under the influence of their environment and social status.” So much for the TPD’s reasoning of prohibiting addictive products with adverse health effects into the Union and saving the youth from perdition.

A comparison

As a matter of fact, what the public health science data reveals regarding smokeless tobacco is apparently being ignored by the EU Commission altogether, so let’s take a comparative look at the statistics behind the relatively benign consequences of oral smokeless tobacco use as compared to that of cigarettes.

Recent research of smokeless tobacco use has proven to be a “harm-reduction product” as evidenced in Norway, Iceland, and previously mentioned Sweden. According to The Lancet medical journal, which assessed Swedish snus for tobacco harm reduction, there was “little difference in health-adjusted life expectancy between smokers who quit all tobacco and smokers who switched to using snus”. Data from Swedish longitudinal studies show in primary smokers who started secondary snus use, 10.6 percent reduced to occasional smoking and 76.3 percent stopped smoking altogether. An epidemiological modelling study has strongly suggested that switching from smoking cigarettes to smokeless oral tobacco is likely to result in net health gains, leading to a fair conclusion that smokeless tobacco is an effective substitute, and even a healthier alternative, for those who want to quit smoking, but have trouble doing so. More startlingly, one study by London’s Royal College of Physicians found smokeless tobacco to be more than ten times safer than cigarettes. Why? Because the research found that nicotine alone is about as harmful as caffeine, and even though both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco contain large amounts of nicotine, it is rather the delivery system itself, the cigarettes’ smoke, that is lethal and carries the most damage.

Smokers and cancer

Conversely to the EU Commission’s logic for the ban, the Swedes’ love of oral tobacco is most likely the reason why Sweden has the fewest smokers among all the countries in the world and, interestingly enough, is one of the countries in the EU with the lowest rate of cancer. This, it should be noted, is in stark contrast to Croatia that has the number 1 highest rate of cancer in the EU and also happens to have the third highest (36 percent) amount of smokers among any of the EU countries. Overall, compared to the rest of the world, the World Health Organization states that the European Region has one of the highest proportions of deaths attributable to smoking-related tobacco. The death rate for lung cancer in 2016 alone was 52.9 per 100 000 inhabitants, higher than the rates for any other type of cancer. With such statistics in the face of the EU Commission, any plausible opportunities to reduce rates of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and heart disease related to smoking are being squandered given the smokeless tobacco ban. This alone should give the EU Commission pause to even consider banning such a viable alternative to smoking.

Time for reflection?

Beyond the far more important considerations for mitigating smoking-related diseases are implications of consumer rights violations, as well as a disregard for EU legal principles. One can plausibly argue that the existing directive to ban oral tobacco is discriminatory. Why should a product be treated differently because it is taken orally rather than smoked? It appears the regulation of this particular tobacco product is essentially a measure to assist the functioning of a single, far more dangerous market, which solely caters to the cigarette industry. With such considerations in mind, perhaps it’s time for some reflection by the EU Commission regarding its ban on smokeless tobacco, as well as its priorities: The profit margins of cigarette-industry lobby groups, or a real concern for the health of its citizens?