Snus is a smokeless bag with moist tobacco powder from Sweden, which is placed under the upper lip. Do not burn or spit when using it.
"Compared to cigarette smoking, chewing tobacco use is probably less harmful," says Dr. Michael Steinberg, MPH, director of the Tobacco Dependence Program at Rutgers University. "However, there is a big difference between less harmful and safe."
"I'd rather not do anything, but with tobacco products, it's on the low end of harm," says Eric Garrison, associate director of health promotion at the College of William & Mary.
How is chewing tobacco different from cigarettes?
Snus originated in Sweden as a way of preserving tobacco. In this country, it is considered something that has helped reduce smoking. More than half of Swedish snus consumers are ex-smokers.
"They reduced the risk of developing cancer," says Garrison. "They are not without risk, but by switching to chewing tobacco, their risk has been greatly reduced." The argument is that without tobacco these people would still be smoking.
Smoking tobacco has also helped reduce the number of smokers in Norway. People there used it either as an aid in quitting smoking or as an alternative to cigarettes if they were unable to quit smoking. And some young people in Norway took snus instead of cigarettes.
However, this did not happen in the US.
In the US, chewing tobacco is produced differently. While the Swedes have limited the number of chemicals that can be contained in their snus products, such as tobacco-specific nitrosamines, there are no such rules in the US. "We're seeing some tobacco companies calling their products snus, but that's not quite the same as Swedish snus," says Sward. "And these nitrosamines are carcinogenic." In other words, they can cause cancer.
Furthermore, snus has not replaced cigarettes in the US. The number of people who use smokeless tobacco has remained roughly the same over the past several decades. Snus didn't change that.
What are the risks?
Snus contains nicotine, so it is addictive - you can become addicted to it. Quitting the habit has the same unpleasant side effects as quitting smoking, including headaches and nausea.
Smokeless tobacco products also provide more nicotine and nitrosamines than cigarettes, although snus generally contains lower amounts of nitrosamines than other smokeless products.
Does it help to quit smoking?
This question is difficult to answer clearly because it varies from case to case. When a person starts using snus instead of cigarettes, it is generally less harmful. One of the big problems with snus is that it prevents smoking but not nicotine. They could quit smoking altogether. Instead of quitting smoking, these smokers use snus as a replacement product. So it can help to quit smoking, but not nicotine. Popular snus products that keep people from smoking can be found here.
The most harmful are the tobacco products that you burn. Medical nicotine products such as patches and gum are the least harmful. Snus falls in the middle: it's safer than cigarettes, but not as safe as nicotine gum. Rule of thumb: one portion of chewing tobacco is approximately the same as the nicotine concentration in three cigarettes.