Trading smokes for snus may be a safer bet

In the tobacco family, chew and dip are considered the country cousins. When they visit, a murky cup of tobacco juice soon follows.

So it may be a surprise to learn of the Swedish relatives. A neater smokeless tobacco that comes in a small tea bag and doesn't require spitting, tobacco companies say. It arrived in local Sheetz stations last summer. Its name is snus.

Like all American tobacco, snus (pronounced "snoose") carries a warning -- "may cause mouth cancer" or "not a safe alternative to cigarettes." It's a reminder of the hazards linked to tobacco, from stained teeth to terminal illness.

Except researchers say that snus is a safer choice than cigarettes. Replacing smokes with this Swedish export, they claim, reduces the health risks of lighting up.

"In an ideal world, every smoker would just simply quit using tobacco," said Dr. Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville who has studied smokeless tobacco for the past 15 years. But that goal is often too hard, he said, and noted just a 5 percent success rate among the 30 million or so American smokers who try to quit each year.

Rodu, whose work was partly funded by unrestricted grants from two smokeless tobacco companies, wants smokers to know their options for "harm reduction" -- beyond high-priced drug store options such as nicotine gum and patches.

So, snus. It means "snuff" in its native Sweden, a country that supporters point to as evidence that snus is safer tobacco.

Swedes consume the majority of their tobacco as snus and tobacco-related deaths there are among the lowest in the developed world, a pair of researchers at Australia's University of Queensland wrote in the journal PLoS Medicine in July.

Snus-ers face a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than smokers, they reported. And snus, which is pasteurized, is much lower in nitrosamines -- the main cancer-causing agents in smokeless tobacco -- than more popular forms of chew and dip used in the United States, which are fermented.

"We think it would be good public health policy to encourage inveterate smokers to adopt less harmful ways of using nicotine," the Australian researchers, Coral Gartner and Wayne Hall, concluded.

But "this is a tobacco product. There is no safe tobacco product," said David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of the Camel brand snus that has been sold in Sheetz gas stations since July.

Snus critics worry that Sweden's results won't translate to other countries. They point out that Camel markets snus to be used along with cigarettes, not as a replacement, with slogans such as "When you can't smoke, snus."

"There is no suggestion of stopping smoking," Simon Chapman and Becky Freeman of the University of Sydney wrote in a response to their colleagues in Queensland.

In February, a European Union health panel ruled that snus hasn't been proved to help people quit smoking. The American Cancer Society takes that stance, too. Concerns about the hazards of smokeless tobacco, which include cancer of the mouth, have led to a ban on snus in Australia and the EU, except Sweden.

Snus hasn't appeared at downtown Roanoke's Milan Tobacconists, where boxes of cigars and pipes line the shelves. But last week, co-owner David Meyer considered a tin of snus that a reporter brought by.

"I don't think anti-smokers will say, 'Oh yeah, this is a great product,' " Meyer said. But he added, "From a logical standpoint, if you're not inhaling smoke into your lungs, you're better off."

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