What's all the snus about? Swedish MEP dealing snuff in Brussels

 

The labyrinthine corridors of the European Parliament building in Brussels are hardly the obvious hangout for a brazen drug dealer to traffic his produce across international borders. Yet should you ever be in desperate need of an illicit fix of snus – a type of Swedish snuff tobacco which cannot be sold legally anywhere in the EU apart from in its home country – Christofer Fjellner's office is the place to go.

As part of his campaign to make the sale of snus legalised, the fresh-faced Swedish MEP stocks up on a supply of the moist, brown powder every time he flies home to bring back with him to the Belgian capital. Once he's landed, word quickly spreads among Scandinavian devotees who rush to his premises to pick up €4 cans of their sticky vice, which they place in pouches under their top lips to absorb into their bloodstream.

"I kept some in my office for private use and some friends used to knock and ask if I had some to sell them," Mr Fjellner, 35, told The Independent. "After a while I thought it would be a fun prank to start selling it. So I bought a small refrigerator, and I started to bring more boxes back with me. Nowadays I have 10 or 15 regular customers, most of them Swedish. "There is a bit of disobedience to it – consciously to break the law but be willing to take the consequences for it," he admits.

He doesn't know what the maximum punishment would be if he was arrested, but he says with a laugh: "It would make for an interesting court case."

At a time when the future of the euro hangs in the balance, snus has not been an especially pressing matter for most Brussels politicians, even in the knowledge of a dealer in their midst. Or at least it wasn't, until last week, when the battle over its legal status led to one of the biggest corruption scandals to hit the EU in years.

The Health Commissioner, John Dalli, pictured below, resigned in ignominy last Tuesday after an official report found that a fellow Maltese politician, Silvio Zammit, had approached the leading manufacturer of snus, Swedish Match, offering to work with Mr Dalli to legalise their product in exchange for bribes worth €60m (£48m). The company alerted the authorities, leading to an investigation by the EU's anti-corruption office, Olaf. It concluded that it "did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli but did consider that he was aware of these events". Implicated in this way, he had to resign.

Mr Dalli, for his part, strenuously denies the allegations – implying after he stepped down that he was forced to resign by the Commission president José Manuel Barroso. "The report stated that there was no proof at all that I was involved in any misdeeds," he said in an interview last week. Mr Zammit has also denied any wrongdoing, saying that he was merely acting as a lobbyist.

That snus was the downfall of such a significant figure in European politics may seem curious to those who have never heard the stuff, let alone experienced the intense rush it's said to induce – which can make some first-time users feel nauseous – nor had to deal with its predominant side-effect, brown teeth.

However, the fight for the right to snus, and for tobacco companies to launch a new product on an untapped market across the Continent, has been intensifying in recent years.

It is not illegal to possess snus, nor to consume it. But its sale has been banned in the EU since 1992, following attempts by a US firm to introduce pouches of chewable tobacco known as Skoal Bandits to the UK. The ban was introduced due to an outcry by health campaigners who pointed to evidence that it can cause mouth cancer.

Only Sweden, where as many as 20 per cent of the population are thought to be users, is exempt, after it negotiated a waver on joining the EU in 1995. Fans of Swedish snus have been joined by many tobacco experts in arguing that it is much more refined and pure than American snuff, thereby posing far less health risks.

With the Royal College of Physicians saying that it is 1,000 times less harmful than cigarettes, it has been hailed as a healthier alternative for heavy smokers. Karl Fagerstrom, who has been researching the effects of tobacco use for 20 years, is among those Swedes who argue that while opening the door for another tobacco product to enter the market is not ideal, allowing smokers to switch to snus is a realistic public health strategy for addressing the cancerous harm of cigarettes.

"Tobacco is a cultural drug as much as alcohol and caffeine, and the history of mankind does not show that we are able to rid us of drugs," he told The Independent. "Those who are against snus and against tobacco… think we could get rid of tobacco altogether, so why do we need another tobacco product?

"...I think we want it to be as little harmful as possible. For that reason I'm in favour of snus and any other product less harmful than cigarettes." Meanwhile, Mr Fjellner is keen to show anyone who will listen an eight-year-old official document, the ENSP Status Report on Oral Tobacco, in which a line admitting there is no clear evidence that Swedish snus is dangerous has been censored using Tip-Ex. "I definitely think there is a cover-up," he says, even going so far as to call it "Snusgate."

However, despite the lobby, it may be the taste of the stuff that means the chances of us all becoming snus addicts is rather far-fetched.

"I once arranged a tasting session in parliament," said Mr Fjellner, "but I'll never do that again, because the people who tried it were more positive about the ban after tasting it."

Swede taste: making a comeback

Snuff is defined by the EU as "moist oral tobacco which can be bought loose and in small, ready-to-use, portions and involves taking a pinch of 1–2g of loose snuff or a portion-bag pouch and placing it between the lip and cheek or gum".

Only snuff produced by Swedish Match is considered to be genuine snus. These days it comes in a variety of flavours, such as lemon, aniseed, coffee, mint and cranberry, and is sold in small packets resembling tea bags.

Snus was widespread in Sweden in the 19th century but suffered a decline in popularity after the Second World War – but it has since made a comeback, with production topping 6,000 tonnes per year.

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