News; Mar 17, 2003 CET

Major step forward in snuff issue within EU

In November 2002, the administrative court in Minden, in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, decided to refer the issue of the EU ban on snuff to the Court of Justice of the European Communities in Luxembourg. The German court is seeking an answer as to whether the ban on sales of snuff within the EU is legal according to European Community Law. Swedish Match believes that this represents a major step toward lifting the ban.

In 1989, what was then known as the European Community (EC) adopted a directive concerning
the regulations for the labeling of tobacco products. When the directive was revised in 1992, the new version banned the sale of tobacco products “for oral use” in the EU market, based, among other factors, on an assumption that such products are particularly carcinogenic. The manner
in which the ban is formulated means that it applies to Swedish snuff (snus).

As far as Sweden was concerned, the snuff ban understandably became a contentious issue during membership negotiations with the EU. Through an exemption in the treaty of accession, Sweden is permitted - as the only EU country to be given this concession - to allow the sale of snuff.

“A NUMBER OF MAJOR epidemiological studies conducted during the 1990s show that Swedish snus does not increase the risk of being affected either by cancer or by cardiovascular diseases”, says Bo Aulin, Senior Vice President, Secretary and General Counsel. “In June 2001, the 1989 directive, in its revised form from 1992, was rescinded and replaced by a new directive. As a result of the Swedish studies, the cancer warning was removed from snus cans in Sweden, but the snuff ban in the remainder of the EU was retained in the directive of 2001 despite the scientific reports.”

On the other hand, the directive stipulates that the European Commission is to submit a report to the European Parliament, not later than December 31, 2004, on how the directive has been applied. In this report, the Commission is also required to examine any new scientific or technical findings, paying special attention to “evaluating tobacco products that could possibly reduce harm.”

“However, it could still be years before such an evaluation could have an effect in the form of amended legislation, given the EU’s complex decision-making procedures. A trial in the Court of Justice, even though it is expected to take two years, is therefore the fastest way to get the snuff ban lifted”, says Bo Aulin.

SWEDISH MATCH HAS IN FACT always maintained that the ban violates fundamental principles of European Community Law, including the requirements of nondiscrimination and proportionality.

When a directive has been adopted, the member states are required to implement it in their own legislation. The idea is that the resulting legislation should in principle be equivalent in all the EU member states, with only formal differences, but despite this aim there are many discrepancies between the national regulations. In Germany, Swedish Match has sold snuff since 1985 under the designation “chewing tobacco.” Since chewing tobacco is not covered by the directive, the company wrote to the German government on two occasions during the 1990s to seek a ruling as to whether Swedish snus could continue to be sold in Germany. Pending a response to these letters, the company has continued to sell snus in Germany. However, no answer has ever been received.

Instead, a local health authority banned further sales in Germany last year. This decision was appealed to the administrative court in Minden, which subsequently, with the support of both the parties involved, decided to refer the issue of the ban’s compatibility with European Community law to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

IN PARALLEL WITH THE LEGAL examination of the issue, increasing attention is being paid to what is commonly referred to as “the Swedish Experience” in public health circles throughout the world. The Swedish Experience can be summarized as high snus consumption, low cigarette consumption and low incidence of tobacco-related illnesses. “Sweden is the first country in the world to have achieved the World Health Organization’s target of reducing the proportion of smokers in the adult population to under 20 percent, and it is precisely the widespread consumption of snus in Sweden that has helped to bring this about. More than half of all Swedish snus users are former smokers. As a consequence of the switch to snus, smoking-related diseases are considerably less common in Sweden than in other comparable countries. And the frequency of oral cancer is lower in Sweden than in any other country”, says Bo Aulin.

“Swedish Match takes the view that snus does more good than harm and should be regarded as part of the solution to the tobacco problem rather than part of the problem. Nor does the company consider that there is any cogent public-health-related reason to maintain the ban”, concludes Bo Aulin.