How Snus Works

American Snus Products

If you've never heard of snus, you're not alone. Both Altria and R.J. Reynolds have launched major national advertising campaigns to introduce the strange-sounding product to American markets. Both companies are advertising in magazines and wherever cigarettes are sold. Altria and R.J. Reynolds sell their snus lines in pre-packaged bundles along with packs of Marlboro and Camel cigarettes. Depending on local taxes, Altria and Reynolds are charging from $2 to $5 for a pack of snus.

Congressional legislation that passed in June 2009 authorized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with new powers to restrict marketing of cigarettes. Until this legislation, tobacco marketing was restricted through a patchwork of judicial rulings. Tobacco companies can no longer use terms like "light" and "low tar" in their marketing materials, and will soon be required to add prominent warning labels such as "Smoking Kills" (these will be more dramatic than the traditional Surgeon General's warning). The 2009 bill didn't specify how smokeless products would be regulated, though it prohibits manufacturers from making claims that they are less harmful.

With greater latitude to market smokeless products than cigarettes, tobacco companies have high hopes for snus. They have tried to make the claim that snus can help smokers quit. In a controversial letter to the FDA, Altria suggested that its smokeless products are designed to "complement proven prevention and cessation strategies, not to compete with them" [source: Wilson and Creswell]. The companies have marketed the products as a way to get a nicotine fix when you can't smoke, like a nicotine gum.

Tobacco control experts are saying not so fast. They warn that American snus products aren't actually snus. The tobacco delivers far lower levels of nicotine than traditional Swedish snus. This means that Marlboro and Camel snus won't calm nicotine cravings as effectively as nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). If you think this undermines the companies' claim that snus can help people stop smoking, you're not alone.

This raises the question whether the companies are using snus to create new smokers. Unlike Swedish snus, which uses only light flavor additives, both products come in a variety of mint flavors, which have long been thought to appeal to young users. One line of Skoal, Altria's flavored dipping tobacco, has eight times the quantity of methyl salicylate flavoring, or wintergreen, as Wint-O-Green Life Savers [source: Wilson and Creswell]. While there haven't been any studies showing the quantity of flavoring in Altria's and R.J. Reynolds snus products, the companies have demonstrated a willingness to stretch the definition of the truth -- or the snus, as the case may be.