Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The True Impact of Snus in Sweden: Smoking Cessation Up, Initiation Down

It is a widely accepted myth that snus use among men in Sweden has only served as a quit-smoking aid. While my published studies from 2002 to 2005 (described here, here, and here) and many others (here, here, and here) have documented that male smokers in Sweden have used snus as a gateway to a smoke-free life, that is only part of the story.

Snus use has also played a valuable role in steering tobacco initiators away from more dangerous cigarettes. In 2005, I authored a study of tobacco use among Swedish boys and girls age 15-16, which was published in Tobacco Control (here). The results are impressive: “During the period 1989 to 2003, the prevalence of tobacco use [in Sweden] declined both among boys and girls. For boys, regular smoking declined after 1992 from 10% to 4%. Their snus use was about 10% in the 1990s but increased to 13% by 2003. Regular smoking among girls was 20% in early years and declined to 15%. Smoking among girls was always double that among boys. Patterns of occasional tobacco use were similar to those of regular use.”

I also observed that “…specific patterns of tobacco use differ strikingly between Swedish boys and their EU counterparts…In 2002 the World Health Organization reported that the average prevalence of daily smoking among 15 year old boys in 25 European countries (excluding Sweden) was 18%.7. In that report boys in Sweden had the lowest smoking prevalence of all countries (5.7%), at about one third of the EU average. The next highest prevalence was in Greece (9.2%). All other countries reported prevalences from 12% (Wales) to 27% (Lithuania). Thus, high prevalence of snus use by Swedish boys may be a factor in low smoking prevalence.

“In contrast, smoking rates among 15 year old girls in Sweden do not differ from those among girls in other European countries. In the 2002 WHO report smoking prevalence among Swedish girls was the fifth lowest in Europe (14%), but still close to the average for all other countries (19%, range 11% in Greece to 29% in Germany).”

I want to be absolutely clear: I strongly support all measures to keep tobacco away from children. However, a tobacco-free world, for adults and children, is as likely as an alcohol-free world was in 1920 (here). Teenagers will use tobacco, no matter what measures are taken to stop them. The remarkable story from Sweden is that most boys choose snus, the product their fathers use. This fact is well-received by health and policy professionals who understand that snus users lead lives that are virtually indistinguishable (in measures of years and health) from those of their abstinent peers.

Finally, the “Swedish Snus Experience” is not only about men. Recently, more women in Sweden are also using modern snus products (evidence here), which are spit-free and socially acceptable. This may represent the first time in recorded history that women have adopted a healthier behavior – from their husbands.