Joseph Hart 17 November 2023


Reviewing the documentary

How Sweden Quit Smoking is a new documentary from the always excellent We Are Innovation. It’s directed by Tomasz Agencki, known for previous films Korwin, Beyond the Cloud, and the award-winning Where the Directives Grow.

Each of Agencki’s previous films ponders the absurdity of the people and organisations that govern our lives. How Sweden Quit Smoking is no different.

The films trailer featuring Carissa Düring

The film’s primary question is simple: How did Sweden hit a 5% smoking prevalence rate 17 years before other EU member states? To find the answer to this question, Agencki sits down with various heavyweights of the harm reduction community, including the legendary Karl Fagerström, Considerate Pouchers Carissa Düring, and inventor Bengt Wiberg, to name just a few.

With a running time below 50 minutes, the documentary glides along at a nice clip. It moves through the 250-year history of snus, squeezing in lots of background and insights. From there, we hear about Sweden’s brief dalliance with high smoking rates through the 1950s and 1960s, before a gradual decline thanks to the availability of portioned snus.

What’s interesting here is that there were a lot of countries around the Europe in a similar spot around the same time. However, Sweden embarked on a unique trajectory. Portioned snus offered a credible alternative to cigarettes right at the time when links between smoking and adverse health outcomes were being established.

Another enlightening part of Sweden’s battle to reduce smoking rates involves the gender disparity in snus uptake. For a long time, snus was messy and bulky and didn’t appeal to many women. However, the invention of cleaner, more discrete nicotine pouches has largely solved this problem.

The film is nicely shot, with lots of variety. It uses a familiar talking heads format but mixes it with footage and visuals. Moreover, there are some lovely bursts of humour in there, too. The guests are engaging, credible, and interesting, with Agencki’s genial style ensuring that things never feel overly academic or rigid.

In many ways, Sweden’s low smoking prevalence is a story of numbers: not just that hallowed 5% smoking rate, but other figures too, such as the nation’s low cancer rates. There is a clear temptation to let the facts speak for themselves and wonder why health administrations and governments can’t figure things out; however, How Sweden Quit Smoking goes further by injecting some real humanity into the piece.

The experts that Agencki uses are clear-thinking, informed, and, most importantly, passionate about helping people find new pathways to stop smoking. Atakan Befrits of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO) is of great value throughout the piece thanks to his impeccable reasoning, while Fredrik Nystrom brings a medical perspective and lots of laughs.

However, perhaps Jean-Pierre Barda, one of the founding members of the pop group Army of Lovers, will prove most relatable to global smokers. His sections are a rollercoaster ride of quitting, relapsing, and finally quitting all over again, thanks to the help of e-cigarettes. His experiences also highlight the utility of having a range of available smoking-harm reduction products alongside snus.

Final thoughts

Who is this documentary for? I loved it because it allowed me to see people I admire on screen discussing important issues. However, the ambition of the documentary is rightly more far-reaching. 

Sweden’s male population has the EU’s lowest rates of lung cancer and cancer in general. It also has the lowest rates of tobacco-related illness and death. Current smokers, policymakers, educators, and medical professionals need to see this documentary to understand how access to harm-reduction products makes an impact where it counts: saving and improving the quality of lives.

On the one hand, How Sweden Quit Smoking is a celebration of the first “smoke-free” society. On the other hand, it’s a powerful reminder that harm reduction gets results. This documentary is required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in public health.