How short-sighted nicotine alternative legislation boosts the black market
In July this year, the Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet posted an excellent article about the illicit trade of Snus in Finland. The piece tells the story of Mikko, a 25-year-old resident of a university town called Vaasa who helps supply Finish snussers with the prohibited harm reduction product via a bustling WhatsApp group.
What I found remarkable about the story is how citizens like Mikko are forced into illegal actions because of EU legislation they have no control over. I never know whether to laugh or cry when I hear the EU crow about the importance of democracy and science-based governance. Typically, I settle on a hollow laugh.
Snus, like all oral tobacco, is banned across the EU. As Finland is a member state, the smoking alternative product cannot be sold legally. The ban stems from a 1985 World Health Organization report that stated, “Oral use of snuffs of the types used in North America and Western Europe is carcinogenic to humans.”
However, more recent research cast significant doubts on these claims. In 2020, the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health (SJPH) published a paper with a sample size of 400,000 men. They concluded, “Swedish snus use does not appear to be implicated in the development of oral cancer in men.”
Finland’s proximity and close cultural ties to Sweden mean that getting snus over the border is uncomplicated. Moreover, authorities lack the appetite to tackle the “problem” because they’re rightly occupied with actual crime. However, the ban hasn’t stopped snus from becoming popular in Finland, with research showing snus use more than doubled between 2005 and 2020, and now sits at around 11%.
She stated, “The Finnish recognize the potential of snus, they want to use it, and Finland has seen the benefits in decreasing smoking rates as more and more people switch to snus. Yet – their hands are tied. They can not legalize it. Instead, they lose an enormous amount of tax revenue to the black market, which could have gone elsewhere.”
The point about the black market is important. When Finnish snussers buy the harm reduction product, the money spent never benefits the Finnish coffers. In a fine piece in Snusforumet, Theo Herold breaks down the potential lost revenues based on Finnish snus prevalence and puts the figure at around SEK 830 million per year, or just under £60m. Factor in the potential trade and employment that a legal snus market could bring, and the picture gets even worse.
The broader context
It doesn’t take a sophisticated black market operation to transport Snus to Finland because citizens are permitted to carry a certain amount per visit. As a result, the players in the game are mostly affable characters like Mikko. However, in other countries around Europe, the situation is more complex. These scenarios are where less savoury elements of organised crime can get involved.
The EU already has a large black market for smoking, with KPMG estimating around 35 billion counterfeit cigarettes were sold in 2022. While affordability is what primarily drives the illicit cigarette trade, a lack of availability is what causes European citizens to purchase snus and nicotine pouches in areas without sensible legislation.
The good news for Finns is that the government is taking steps to legalise nicotine pouches. For snussers like Mikko, this provides a legal pathway to nicotine that won’t involve clandestine meetings in parking lots to buy smoking alternative products. However, the same cannot be said for our brothers and sisters in other EU countries.
Nicotine pouches have a much higher chance of favourable regulation when compared to snus. In an ideal world, citizens in democratic countries could be allowed to choose for themselves. But for now, nicotine pouches can serve as a satisfactory compromise.
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