As the government considers banning disposable vapes because they are thought to appeal to children, it is worth reflecting on the strange saga of the EU’s ban on snus, a Swedish smokeless tobacco product that delivers nicotine into the body via a small pouch placed under the lip. The story begins when Edwina Currie was health minister in 1988. She announced a ban on oral tobacco in response to a panic about Skoal Bandits, an American brand of snus with a masked cowboy on its logo which was presumed to appeal to children. The product itself was assumed to cause mouth cancer. In 1990, the EEC got involved. It argued that unilateral prohibition by a member state was a threat to the internal market and banned snus across the bloc.
No one really cared, because the number of snus users in the EEC was negligible, but when Sweden prepared to join the EU in 1994, the ban became a problem. Swedes had been using snus for 200 years and saw no reason to stop. With the public tightly divided ahead of the referendum, the EU suddenly forgot about market harmonisation and gave Sweden an exemption from the ban, requiring only that snus be labelled with a cancer warning.
Almost nobody considered the possibility that snus might be useful in helping smokers give up cigarettes, but the natural experiment unwittingly set in motion by the EU showed that it did. By 2002, the proportion of Swedish men who smoked had fallen to 15 per cent, much lower than the rest of the EU. At the same time, the scientific evidence had swung against the theory that snus caused oral cancer, to such an extent that in 2001 the EU took the unprecedented step of removing the cancer warning.