Snus in focus
With a focus on the theme of Harm Reduction, the North American management team of Swedish Match was recently interviewed at their Richmond, Virginia headquarters. The team includes Lennart Freeman, President, Gerard Roerty, Vice President, General Counsel, Patrik Hildingsson, Vice President, New Business Development and Mark Whitfield, Director of New Business Development.
What are the potential benefits of Harm Reduction as it relates to tobacco products?
Freeman: First of all, we strongly believe in tobacco-based Harm Reduction, because our Swedish snus, a modern smokeless tobacco product, has proven itself as a viable and a far more sensible option to cigarette smoking. Every year, Swedish snus gains greater awareness by public health officials, and people on Capitol Hill in Washington. However, public awareness is in its infancy.
Once there is awareness that all tobacco is not the same, and snus is seen as a safer alternative to cigarette smoking, then we will have a big market opportunity.
Today, many American cigarette smokers think that smokeless products are as bad as cigarettes. I might add that many smokeless users think that smokeless is very bad, but not as bad. Awareness of the dramatically lower health risk of snus is not widely known.
Because snus cans carry a far-reaching warning, mandated by the U.S. government, it’s no wonder that the public doesn’t see the potential for snus as a viable alternative to reduce the harmful effects of cigarette smoking.
Where is the business opportunity for Swedish Match as Harm Reduction catches on?
Freeman: We believe we are sitting on an extraordinarily good business proposition. We have an unusual opportunity as producers of an alternative for cigarette smokers, because there are so many cigarette smokers, and we do something that can be good for public health.
The way of consuming tobacco in Sweden demonstrates a very realistic and pragmatic model in the world to lower illnesses and fatalities connected with cigarette smoking. This phenomenon is very often referred to as the Swedish Experience (see sidebar). Smokers access to viable alternatives, like snus, is part of the Swedish Experience. The vast majority of the snus consumed in Sweden comes from Swedish Match. To that extent Swedish Match is indirectly linked to the Swedish Experience.
As a result of greater awareness in the U.S. of Sweden’s decrease in deaths from tobacco smoking, and our own efforts to better understand our products on a scientific and medical level, we are increasingly gaining credibility with public health officials. Because of our openness about our products and manufacturing methods, experts and consumers alike, are starting to believe in snus.
What’s the status of snus in America?
Whitfield: Back in 2001 we started to sell snus in the U.S. on a small scale in a few major markets. Our ambition has been to make sure that we have the right offering in terms of brands, flavors, and merchandizing. We see a difference between Swedish tastes and U.S. tastes, so we have brought that into our offering.
We see a slow, but steady growth of our products, and prospects for doing even better-based upon constant interaction with tobacco users, particularly heavy smokers.
What difficulties do you see in promoting the benefits of Swedish snus?
Hildingsson: When Swedish Match speaks about snus and its benefits, we are frank and forthright, but we must at the same time remember that we are a company built around tobacco products, and as a tobacco company, we have a limited credibility. For this reason we need to be very strict on how we communicate scientific facts and other information relevant to the smokers.
Our core message is complex. Another problem in America is that the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) says they don’t have the competence to speak about tobacco, and the FDA says they don’t have the jurisdiction, because the FDA does not regulate tobacco products. Whitfield: Consumer education is important to overcome false perceptions around snus. In-depth sampling and targeted direct mail to adult smokers has been an effective way to educate our consumers in the difference between snus and other types of smokeless tobacco products. We also strive for a sound dialogue with doctors and health officials.
What role can communications play in the success of Swedish Match in America?
Hildingsson: The success of Swedish Match in the coming years is very much a communication issue. We must find a way to amplify a compelling true story, written and lived over the past decades. We must communicate the statistics and facts of Swedish snus and the important role the category plays among Swedish smokers. But there’s a lot of "noise" to overcome, and a multitude of messages to compete with.
Nobody disputes that there is a clear correlation between cigarette smoking and a number of serious fatal diseases.
In America alone smoking is considered to cause as many as 400,000 deaths per year. The record low prevalence of tobacco related diseases and death in Sweden is due to the fact that Swedish men smoke less. An important reason why the Swedes smoke less is because they have had, throughout the years, access to a viable option to their cigarettes.
Snus doesn’t save lives, but is being an efficient alternative to cigarette smoking. The result of reduced smoking prevalence in a population is saved lives. A correlation between smokeless tobacco and oral cancer is also often taken for granted. Despite the fact that Swedish men are the only Europeans that extensively use snus, Swedish men have a record low incidence of oral cancer. How do you communicate all this in a restricted environment? That’s the real challenge we face.
How is smokeless tobacco perceived in America?
Whitfield: Americans hardly know Swedish snus, but they are familiar with moist snuff, which in some ways is similar to snus. There’s also a tradition of chewing tobacco, but it’s a declining category. Both chewing tobacco and snuff have a social stigma among most Americans.
Since snus usage doesn’t produce saliva, you don’t have to spit. This is seen as a plus and is one of the educational challenges we face as we build awareness of snus.
Freeman: Moist snuff is picking up in America. It goes hand in hand with the increasing attention on the serious health risks of cigarette smoking and intensified political interventions, like smoking bans in restaurants.
Especially in the pouch market, the potential is great. In the U.S. the pouch market share is 5%. In Sweden it’s 50% of smokeless tobacco products.
As the recognition of the potential role of snus as an alternative to cigarettes grows, does this automatically mean that Swedish Match will prosper?
Freeman: Swedish Match as a tobacco company has the rare potential of growing profits and doing something good for society. We have a great story to tell, and have the ability to contribute very positively to public health.
But, there’s a lot of confusion about tobacco products, and we need to help government efforts to do a much better job, allowing the facts to come through.
At the moment, the U.S. government don’t recognize the difference between cigarettes and smokeless. We hope to change that by communicating with the Congress and governmental agencies on an ongoing basis.
How close is the Congress to making clear distinctions between the risks of cigarette smoking and snus?
Roerty: We are seeing very different points of view on Capitol Hill in Washington. Some members of Congress see the merits of Harm Reduction, and have encouraged the Surgeon General of the United States to have workshops to get the message out. Others have a hard time overcoming the unfortunate perception of the tobacco industry as not being trustworthy, only interested in profits, not public health.
When you add to this the fact that the Energy & Commerce committee (the House of Representatives committee with jurisdiction over tobacco) are championing this issue one day, and then having to grapple with misguided FDA regulation that is not based upon a Harm Reduction concept the next day, it’s hard to move the Harm Reduction issue forward in the Congress.
At this time health warnings are congressionally mandated for smokeless tobacco products, which unfortunately adds to the consumer misconceptions about Swedish snus. The government is cautioning consumers against a product that has the potential to save millions of lives over the next few decades.
What can Americans expect from their government to clear up the confusion between smoking and smokeless?
Roerty: If regulation by the FDA wins out, there will be pressure to protect the consumer from the worst products- which in our case means that we would be lumped in with harmful smokeless products (including products from India, which include many substances other than tobacco, such as areca nut), as well as cigarettes.
Concerning Swedish snus, even critics on Capitol Hill are showing an open mind toward Swedish snus. But, unless the Congress adopts a regulatory scheme, which separates cigarettes from smokeless, we will see continued promotion of misinformation.
What’s the desired outcome of Swedish Match from government participation in tobacco regulation or dissemination of information?
Freeman: We need for the American government, even the FDA, to acknowledge the difference between cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and then between certain forms of smokeless made in other countries and Swedish snus. Unless you recognize differences, then all tobacco is seen as being bad.
Is there really a compelling pro snus story from the medical community?
Roerty: Every serious study that has been conducted on Swedish snus demonstrates the life saving potential of snus in favor of cigarette smoking.
This is not to say that smokeless tobacco is flawless, or that sustained nicotine consumption is a medical ideal. But, the potential for saving millions of lives over the next several decades, resulting from decreased cigarette consumption, is indisputable.