Sweden Is Set To Become Europe’s First ‘Smoke-Free’ Country

Sweden is close to declaring itself Europe’s first ‘smoke-free’ country – defined as having fewer than 5 per cent of daily smokers in the population. Some experts have said Sweden’s rate of smoking – the lowest in the European Union – is down to decades of anti-smoking campaigns and legislation, while others point to the prevalence of ‘snus’, a smokeless tobacco product banned elsewhere in the EU but marketed in Sweden as an alternative to cigarettes.

The 5 per cent milestone is now within reach, as statistics from the Public Health Agency of Sweden show the daily smoking rate reached 5.6 per cent last year. In comparison, 13.3 per cent of British adults smoke cigarettes, which equates to around 6.6 million people, according to the latest government figures from 2021. 

Meanwhile, only 6.4 per cent of Swedes over 15 were daily smokers in 2019, the lowest in the EU and far below the average of 18.5 per cent across the 27-nation bloc, according to the Eurostat statistics agency. Figures from the Public Health Agency of Sweden show the smoking rate has continued to fall since then, reaching 5.6 per cent last year.

The risks of smoking appear well understood among health-conscious Swedes, including younger generations. Twenty years ago, almost 20 per cent of the population were smokers – which was a low rate globally at the time. Since then, measures to discourage smoking have brought down smoking rates across Europe, including bans on smoking in restaurants.

France saw record drops in smoking rates from 2014 to 2019, but that success hit a plateau during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic – blamed in part for causing stresses that drove people to light up. About one-third of people aged 18 to 75 in France professed to have smoked in 2021 – a slight increase in 2019. About a quarter smoke daily.

Sweden has gone further than most to stamp out cigarettes and says this has resulted in a range of health benefits, including a relatively low rate of lung cancer. The sight of people lighting up is becoming increasingly rare in the country of 10.5 million. Smoking is prohibited at bus stops and train platforms and outside the entrances of hospitals and other public buildings.

Snus – less harmful alternative to smoking

Like in most of Europe, smoking is not allowed inside bars and restaurants, but since 2019 Sweden’s smoking ban also applies to their outdoor seating areas. Swedish snus makers have long held up their product as a less harmful alternative to smoking and claim credit for the country’s declining smoking rates. But Swedish health authorities are reluctant to advise smokers to switch to snus, another highly addictive nicotine product.

Some studies have linked snus to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature births if used during pregnancy. The World Health Organisation (WHO) attributes Sweden’s declining smoking rate to a combination of tobacco control measures, including information campaigns, advertising bans and ‘cessation support’ for those wishing to quit tobacco.

However, the agency noted that Sweden’s tobacco use is at more than 20% of the adult population, similar to the global average when snus and similar products are included.

‘Switching from one harmful product to another is not a solution,’ the WHO said. ‘Promoting a so-called ‘harm reduction approach’ to smoking is another way the tobacco industry is trying to mislead people about the inherently dangerous nature of these products.’


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