A scandal not taken with a pinch of snuff

Tuesday 23 October 2012 09:50

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, Swedish MEP stocks up on 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 Scandanavian devotees who pick up €4 cans of their sticky vice.

"I kept some for private use and some friends used to knock and ask if I had some to sell them," Mr Fjellner, 35, told The Independent. "Nowadays I have 10 or 15 regular customers, most of them Swedish."

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. 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, 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 go.

Mr Dalli, for his part, strenuously denies the allegations. "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 says he was merely acting as a lobbyist. That snus was the downfall of such a significant figure may seem curious.

However, the fight for the right to snus 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 after an outcry by health campaigners who pointed to evidence that it can cause mouth cancer.

Only Sweden is exempt, after it negotiated a waver on joining the EU in 1995. 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 researched the effects of tobacco for 20 years, is among those Swedes who argue that snus is a realistic public health strategy for addressing the cancerous harm of cigarettes.

However, despite the lobby, in favour of it, it may be the taste that stopsus all becoming snus addicts. "I arranged a tasting session in parliament," said Mr Fjellner, "but the people who tried it were more positive about the ban."

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