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OPINION: Snus, the disgusting Swedish habit I just can’t stand

OPINION: There's nothing more revolting than a snusing Swede, says a particularly squeamish Oliver Gee. Here's why.

OPINION: Snus, the disgusting Swedish habit I just can't stand
Warning. This is going to be a bit of an angry rant. Photo: Robert Henriksson/SvD/TT

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Let's get one thing straight from the beginning. I love Swedes. I'm about to marry one for God's sake. I learned their language, I served my time living there and I've learned the words to the Midsommarafton songs. I've even been Father Christmas for Swedish kids once (but I wasn't invited back). 

But one thing about Swedes that I absolutely cannot stand is their obsession with moist snuff – known locally as snus. And yes, you should know in advance that this is a bit of a disgusted rant – because I just did a google image search for snus hål i munnen and I feel sick. More on that in a second. Because before I get into this revolting little habit, here's a quick explanation of what snus actually is in case you've had the good fortune of never coming across it. 

Snus is moist tobacco powder, which often comes in tiny packages that look like tea bags. This is the popular type of snus that I will focus on. Users place one of the bags under their top lip, presumably for a hit of nicotine that doesn't involve going outside for a cigarette. The snus portion sits in the gap between a user's gum and upper lip until it loses its taste, at which point the user will either spit it out, throw it in the bin, or put it into a separate compartment in their plastic snus box.

READ ALSO: Swedes flush 4 million snus bags down the toilet EVERY DAY

Snus, illegal in the rest of the EU. Just not Sweden. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

Very regular users of the stuff report finding holes in their gums, which have wasted away presumably due to the close proximity of the nicotine for such long periods of time. That's why I googled “snus hål i munnen” (snus hole in your mouth). And the pictures are revolting.

Recent studies have linked snus to oral, head, neck, and pancreatic cancer – and more recently diabetes.

One in five Swedish men use the stuff (only four percent of women), and, for the record, it is illegal to sell it in every single country in the EU – except Sweden. The rest of the EU banned it in 1992.

Now, taking snus can indeed (and should indeed) be a very discreet practice. Some considerate snusers will surreptitiously grab a snus bag with their fingers, pop it in their mouth like a little piece of chewing gum, then use their tongue to push it into position in their lip. It can be done in two seconds, you wouldn't even notice. Then these considerate snus users will throw the used snus in the bin when they're done. I have no problem with these people, even though I do question their health choices.

But what I find revolting are the people who can't do it discreetly. They manually insert their snus into their lip by essentially pulling their top lip away from their face with one hand and stuffing the snus into their gum holes with the other. It would be the same as someone flossing their teeth in public. 

Snusers even appear to be disgusted by their own snusing. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Then you can sometimes see the snus bag hanging somewhere around their teeth when they're talking or laughing. Dangling in there, gripping on to the user's eroded teeth for dear life. Non snusers like me can only watch and hope the wet packet won't jettison out of the snusers mouth and onto the table. Or worse, onto me.  

And some of the worst culprits appear to be disgusted by their own snus habit, because once they're done with their little session, they try to distance themselves from their used bag as much as possible. Some just spit them out on the street. Stockholm is littered with disgusting little dried out snus packages that someone has had in their disgusting mouth until it's lost its taste.

Worse still are those who spit their snus into the urinals of the men's public toilets. Bars and nightclubs sometimes have a mini mound of urine–drenched snus packets, congregating near the drain hole, too big to go down the drain. I always think of the poor, unfortunate cleaner who has to dip their gloved hands into clogged up pee pipes to retrieve these grotbags from the toilet. 

Don't even get me started on the taste, by the way. I tried one once to see what the fuss was about, and it was just like taking a massive drag on a wet cigarette. 

Anyway, Sweden may well be a very nearly perfect country, but someone's got to put a stop to the snusing. Or at least run an awareness campaign about how to hide the habit, if you really, really feel the need to snus. That's it from me, I'm off to brush my teeth again. 

Oliver Gee has worked for The Local Sweden and The Local France. He currently hosts The Earful Tower podcast in Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.



Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.