Most scientists now agree that using Swedish snus is at least 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes. Sweden has the lowest tobacco-related mortality rate among males of any nation in the EU. Just 5 per cent of Swedes remain daily smokers. It is facts like these that have put snus (and the Swedish Experience) in the tobacco harm reduction spotlight the world over. There is, nonetheless, one irrefutable and often overlooked downside to snus use. Owing to its high pH level (commonly around 8.7 to aid nicotine uptake, compared to a normal mouth environment of pH 7–7.5), snus can cause a stinging, burning sensation when placed under the lip.
Regular use can lead to what are known as “snus lesions” in the oral mucous membrane lining the inside of the mouth. These are fully reversible if snus use stops; if left untreated, however, they can lead to more serious problems. The characteristic snus stinging can also be an off-putting factor for smokers looking to switch to the product as a reduced-risk alternative. Luckily, a solution to both the snus sting and its more severe consequences is now well on the way, thanks to one enterprising user.
Back in 2010, 52-year old accountant and snus user from the Swedish island of Lidingö, Bengt Wiberg was diagnosed with a severe snus lesion. His gum had started to retract towards his front teeth so far that he was told by his dentist he had to stop using snus or it would continue and expose the tooth neck. Not wanting to give up a habit he had enjoyed since his teenage years, Wiberg took matters into his own hands. Realising that other kinds of wounds were protected from external irritation by barriers, he attached a plaster (band-aid) to the side of his snus pouch that faced his gum. This soon evolved into a piece of thin, soft, harmless, plastic film. With this in place when he used snus, he experienced no more stinging. And soon enough, his dentist agreed that his oral health had been fully restored. Wiberg realised his patch could be developed into a product to benefit other snus users. Sting-free snus was born.
It has taken several years of fine-tuning, and two government start-up allowances (the first ever for a Swedish tobacco-related product, he claims) for Wiberg to get to the point he is at today. Last summer (2017), he was granted a patent in Sweden for his sting-free snus solution: an impermeable, soft and ultra-thin (around 0.03 mm) membrane, approved by the Swedish National Food Agency and in adherence with EU regulation, which can be integrated into one side of the snus pouch in the manufacturing process. “Sting Free snus disrupts the snus pouch’s direct contact with gum and oral mucous membrane and therefore makes snus products more enjoyable with less pain and lower increased risk for irritation on these organs,” Wiberg explains.
Swedish Match North Europe has already signed a licensing agreement for use of Wiberg’s Sting Free patent approved technology but doesn’t have exclusive rights. This means Wiberg is free to arrange more non-exclusive licences with other snus manufacturers for the manufacturing, developing, marketing, distribution and sale of sting-free snus products – something he says he’s well on the way to doing. “Sting Free snus pouches might also become a separate snus pouch accessory in the future,” he adds, “but mainly the technology will be included in many snus pouch brands – new or existing – and thus immediately ready for the snus consumer to use.”
Wiberg hopes his Sting Free snus will become what he calls the “3.0 of snus” – with 1.0 being traditional loose snus and 2.0 being pouch snus invented in 1967 by professor Curt Enzell. “My hope is that in 1 to 2 years every snus, moist snuff in pouch and chew bag manufacturer in the world will provide the optional sting-free properties to their consumers.
“Sting-free snus has already ‘caught on’. I get reports from tobacco dealers in both Sweden and Norway saying that customers are regularly asking for such products,” he says. “This phenomenon is in itself perhaps unique in business history. Ask yourself if you have ever heard of a product that is asked for repeatedly by consumers for over a year without the product ever having been produced for sale.” Wiberg’s invention has already received a number of accolades. Last September, Sting Free snus won the “most exciting newcomer to the industry” award at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York, he reveals. “I also won the prize for Top Business idea in the Swedish Venture Cup a year ago.”
While working on a cost-efficient industrial manufacturing process for his product, Wiberg has met both snus packaging machine and snus paper manufacturers from Germany and the UK. He says attaching the sting-free impermeable film to the standard non-woven snus paper can be done by either laminating the two materials together using heat or an adhesive, or without lamination by including a second bobbin in the snus machine for the impermeable film. While Wiberg says he is not sure how Swedish Match is going about manufacturing their own sting-free snus, the company has verbally confirmed that “the sting-free technology works and is possible to mass produce on an industrial scale”. He believes the release date for the first sting-free snus products will be within a year.
“My wish is for snus users all over the world to benefit from my improvements in snus use and even more from the providing of painless and less irritating snus (or moist snuff or chewing tobacco in pouch) alternatives to smoking of cigarettes,” he explains.
Wiberg is not only doing his best to make sure that a snus pouch is as comfortable as possible in the mouth, he’s also doing a great deal to ensure “snus” is on everybody’s lips. He believes his invention has the potential to help even more smokers, currently put off by the sting, to switch to snus; and his involvement has turned him into an active advocate for tobacco harm reduction. His sting free invention has taken him to a number of tobacco and nicotine related conferences across the globe, and seen him speak up for snus to be appropriately regulated as a tobacco harm reduction product in both the EU and USA. “Swedish Match recently congratulated me on making FDA Tobacco Director Mitch Zeller admit for the for the first time in public that FDA ‘absolutely understands the Swedish Experience’ of snus a few months ago,” he says.
Wiberg has also become involved in the New Nicotine Alliance’s (NNA) challenge of the EU’s ban on snus. “NNA’s campaign shows that any group of consumers in the world, that ordinary consumers can make a difference,” he tells TJI. Indeed, it was NNA’s upcoming hearing in January 2018 that inspired him to set up a social media campaign #EUforsnus back in December 2017 with the help of friend and fellow snus enthusiast, Uwe Hille of Snusfreak.com. “I realised that time was short. My purpose with the campaign was to wake up people all over Europe through social media to what’s at stake in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and to make the vital point that anything other than dropping the snus ban in the EU could cost thousands of smokers their lives annually.”
The EUforsnus campaign is now present on Euforsnus.org, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn, Wiberg tells TJI. The campaign on Facebook alone has over 2500 members from 90 countries – 44 per cent of these are women, and 68 per cent are 34 or younger. “I think the younger generation doesn’t flatly fall for tobacco control’s blunt attempts to brand snus as dangerous and therefore comparable to smoking cigarettes, without informing the public of the totally different degrees of harm,” he explains.
“Social media, as well as the ready availability of information online, has helped the younger generation find less harmful products containing nicotine like e-cigarettes and snus. They might not have adopted the phrase ‘harm reduction’ yet but it doesn’t matter what it is called as long as people change habits to lower risk products and thus save lives.”
Wiberg believes we are on the verge of a global snus revolution. “China has now allowed snus for a year and has even started producing a few own brands,” he says. “Switzerland and New Zealand are next in line to legalise snus. In India, the local smokeless tobacco is inferior and even dangerous, but about 150 million people use it on a daily basis. Export the Swedish snus technology there also, and snus will become one of the most serious contenders to the cigarette industry in the world.”
There is no doubt that Wiberg has caught the entrepreneurial bug and won’t be stopping any time soon. His company, known as “B-O Wiberg Solutions AB”, is now working on what he describes as 2 to 3 “new snus inventions”. “All of these innovations could increase the sales of snus and contribute to increased snus enjoyment worldwide,” he says.
Despite his apparently limitless drive, Wiberg seems quite surprised at what he has achieved. “During this long process I’ve been forced to ‘become’ dentist, scientist, patent engineer, tobacco harm reduction advocate, social media freak, besides being an old Swedish MBA – I’m 60 years old!” Visit stingfreesnus.com for more information.S. Jean