British American Tobacco (BAT), the maker of Lucky Strike, Dunhill, and Pall Mall cigarettes, has recently spent some time promoting its smokeless tobacco brands, saying that snus, a moist tobacco that’s typically placed under the upper lip, is “at least 90 percent less harmful than smoking cigarettes.” But new research, meant to serve as information for tobacco policy in the European Union (EU), finds that BAT and other tobacco companies aren’t really concerned about the public’s health and, rather, are more concerned about maintaining profits should cigarette sales decline.

Snus, one of the many forms of smokeless tobacco, is currently banned in every country in the EU except for Sweden. Researchers with the UK Center for Tobacco Control Studies were tasked with finding information regarding transnational tobacco companies’ interests in smokeless tobacco from the 1970s to the present, to better inform policymakers in their decision, according to a statement.

It's All For The Profits

By comparing the tobacco industry’s internal documents to its campaigns to help reduce public harm with smokeless tobacco, the researchers found that “there is clear evidence that [British American Tobacco’s] early interest in introducing [smokeless tobacco] in Europe was based on the potential for creating an alternative form of tobacco use in light of declining cigarette sales and social restrictions on smoking, with young people a key target,” they wrote.

BAT’s internal documents note cigarettes’ declining popularity, saying, “We have no wish to aid or hasten any decline in cigarette smoking. Deeper involvement in smokeless is strategically defensible. There are fewer people in sophisticated markets starting to smoke. There are increasing numbers of people giving up. There are increasing restrictions on smoking, particularly in public, whether by law or by society.”

An estimated 10 million people currently smoke cigarettes in the UK, and 29 percent of all citizens of the EU smoke. Numerous campaigns to help people quit — 31 percent of EU smokers have tried to quit in the last year — have been implemented, even including an iPhone app that analyzes smoking habits and provides daily, customized advice. With such campaigns, smoking rates have gone down across the continent.

Although there may be lower levels of the carcinogenic tobacco-specific nitrosamines in smokeless tobacco, the National Cancer Institute says that there are still at least 28 chemicals that have been found to cause cancer. Smokeless tobacco has been found to cause oral, esophageal, and pancreatic cancers.

Smokeless Tobacco, Cigarettes, and the Youth

BAT and other tobacco companies specifically target young people in their smokeless tobacco campaigns, the authors said. Portioning snus made it easier to use for young people, and the companies chose which markets to test throughout Europe based on youth and student populations. When certain brands of snus were launched in the UK, “students were both the target and the means of promotion.”

“The fact that smokeless tobacco investments in Europe coincided with the implementation of smoke-free policies, combined with evidence of the industry’s promotion of dual cigarette and snus use in the U.S., add weight to the concern that transnational tobacco companies may hope to exploit snus as a way to reduce the impact of regulations aimed at reducing smoking rates,” the authors wrote. Last month, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that rather than replacing cigarettes with smokeless tobacco, one in 20 middle and high school students were using both.

The authors concluded that the “Swedish experience” with snus could not be generalized to other countries in which snus is not as popular. They say that evidence pointed directly to the industry’s interest in snus “because it could be used in smoke-free environments and could be promoted to young, non-tobacco users to create a new form of tobacco use. This last finding lends support to concerns that smokeless tobacco may lead to, rather than from, smoking."

Source: Peeters S, Gilmore A. Transnational Tobacco Company Interests in Smokeless Tobacco in Europe: Analysis of Internal Industry Documents and Contemporary Industry Materials. PLOS Medicine. 2013.