Sniffing shrunken tea bags in a town in western Sweden

In his book Cycling Back to Happiness, English journalist Bernie Friend covers 6,000 kilometres of northern Europe on a bicycle in a bid to overcome his paranoia. Here, in the first of three excerpts, he describes a close encounter with moist snuff in the western Swedish town of Varberg.

Sniffing shrunken tea bags in a town in western Sweden

Varberg conjured the usual hash of criss-crossing block stone roads, wonderful cooking smells released into the atmosphere by porched restaurants and the mandatory airy centrepiece of trees, benches and a grand town hall. Receiving a nose prodding whiff of pocket friendly hot dogs, we were drawn to the Torggrillen, a fast-food cubby-hole run by a typically blond Swedish lad drowning in a pair of pant flashing baggy knee shorts. It was a miserable evening and business was slow as we stood there gassing about our journey. Chatting away like old muckers, our new pal fetched a Swedish peace pipe out of his pocket, a blue and white shoe polish tin containing miniature tea bags. I didn’t remember ordering a drink.

‘Would you like one of these? It is snus. Very Swedish,’ offered baggy burger boy.

I was completely puzzled now. ‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘Tobacco,’ he replied. ‘You put it in your mouth. It is like smoking, but 10 times stronger. It can’t give you cancer, but might make you feel sick.’

The pant flasher was never going to climb the corporate ladder from burger flipper to life of luxury with that sales pitch. But I was still curious.

‘How does it taste?’

‘Like little Christmas trees,’ he grinned, before waving the open tin of pine scented shrunken tea bags under our noses. ‘And this is even stronger.’ He cracked open another pot containing a solid brown interior, which really did resemble a slab of boot shine. ‘You sure you wouldn’t like some?’

Snus is a moist powder of air-dried tobacco, pushed under the upper lip for an extended period. Originally developed from nostril inhaled snuff, snus comes in cake form, rolled into a ball before gum absorption, or the milder tea bag brand pushed under our noses. The potential health risks of snus have not been studied in great detail, but it isn’t believed to present the same threat to the lungs as inhaled cigarettes. It does contain more nicotine than a pack of smokes, but people all over Scandinavia can’t get enough of that sweet snus taste. The total Swedish production has rocketed to 300 million tins a year, influenced by the indoor smoking bans in Sweden and Norway. That’s an impressive amount of gum rot when you consider the combined populations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden only adds up to 20 million potential tea bag suckers. I didn’t want to become just another number.

‘Cycling Back to Happiness’ (ISBN 9781906206710) is published by Pen Press on April 28th, 2008, and is available to buy and order in all book stores across Europe. For the rest of the world visit or contact [email protected]