History of Snus

Swedish Snus – A proud tradition since the 1800s

The use of Swedish snus is a national tradition, but the origin of Swedish snus is far from an isolated Scandinavian phenomenon. As with all modern tobacco use, Swedish snus also originates from Christopher Columbus’ travel over the Atlantic ocean. A monk by the name Pane, travelling with Columbus to the Americas in 1497, curiously became witness to indian priests inhaling some sort of powder through their noses. One of the main ingredients in this powder was tobacco and it wouldn’t take long before the use of tobacco also reached Europe.

As early as the mid 1500’s, so called nosing snuff, a finely grounded, dried powder from tobacco, came into medicinal use in both Spain and France. The French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, had early on come to know the tobacco plant and is said to have been the person who recommended the French Queen Catherine of Medici to use nosing snuff in order to cure her severe migraine. According to admission, it worked really well and the Queen’s headache is said to have lifted as a result.

Jean Nicot presenting a tobacco plant to the Queen of France, Catherine of Medici, 1561.

The rumours of the newfound plant’s wonderous effects quickly spread and tobacco use in the form of nosing snuff soon became popular, especially in more noble circles and not only for medical purposes. 

Jean Nicot thus became so closely associated with the use of tobacco that the Swedish botanist, physician and zoologist Carl von Linné (1707-1778) eventually chose to name the tobacco plant after him, ”Nicotiana”, in his biological classification system.

The famous Swedish scientist Carl von Linné founded the modern nomenclature within biology and the modern systematics, that groups flora and fauna.

As Paris was the cultural and political capital of Europe at this time, trends and practices quickly spread from here across to the rest of Europe, particularly among the nobility and more posh circuits, but to some extent even down to the population as a whole. So did the use of tobacco.

However, the use of nosing snuff was so strongly associated with the nobility that it came to be despised by the lower social classes, due to the prevailing state of social and political unrest in France at the time. In contrast to the nasal tobacco use practised by the nobility, it was more common among the rest of the population to chew your tobacco.

Popular consumer goods has always been a subject of taxation, throughout the course of history, and tobacco is no exception. The first time tobacco was officially mentioned in Sweden, as far as is known, was in documented customs duty records, dated as early as 1601. The popularity of tobacco as a means of enjoyment relatively soon contributed to the creation of a high demand, which in turn resulted in a growing interest and a quick spread around the country.

As so often happens when it comes to means of enjoyment, today as well as 400 years ago, applied custom duty restrictions and taxations lead to a widespread smuggling of tobacco goods.

In an attempt to remedy the large scale smuggling, the custodian government of the Swedish queen Christina issued a letter of privilege dated the 12 January 1641. The letter stated that the ‘Söderländska Company’, founded already in 1626 and with offices and warehouses in both Stockholm and Gothenburg, received the privilege for tobacco import to Sweden. In other words, they received the first ever Swedish monopoly on tobacco. More were, however, to follow.

In 1915 the latest, and perhaps the last, tobacco monopoly in Sweden was introduced. The main reasons behind it was to provide money to the state coffers in connection to the first world war and in order to set up the foundations for a public pension system. The primary motivation for it was the fact that the vast popularity of Swedish snus was steadily increasing well into the first half of the 1900’s. The raising popularity of Swedish snus didn’t drop until the second world war, when cigarette smoking really got into fashion, as it also attracted a massive scope in popular culture.

During the 1960’s this latest tobacco monopoly was abolished in two separate stages for production and distribution. From the 1970’s and onwards however, the use of Swedish snus has consistently increased and has long since passed cigarettes as the primary choice of tobacco in both Sweden and Norway.

The Swedish Snus

Tobacco farming was widely established in Sweden by the end of the 1700’s and tobacco was commercially grown around about 70 Swedish towns and cities all over the country. At this time the use of chewing tobacco was very common among the population. Generally viewed as a bad habit, this particular means of enjoyment was however considered a bit too expensive during the harsh times that reigned. When the need, which so many times before has been proven to be a cause for change, became increasingly severe during the early 1800’s, a substitute to the chewing tobacco was introduced in the form of wet Swedish snus. The wet Swedish snus, called lip snus or eating snus, was both cheaper and easier to produce.

Thanks to this, tobacco was starting to be grown for household use by every commoner who could, from which to make their own snus.

Some of the larger tobacco farmers eventually started to produce their own commercial snus and in pace with the industrial revolution it didn’t take long until proper tobacco factories in various sizes emerged.

The majority of these factories were located in Swedish port cities, where they had the advantage of receiving the tobacco for production and then shipping the finished snus products to consumers. 

Swedish share certificate for the Swedish snus factory Victoria, dated 1906.

The use of Swedish Snus

Due to the growth of the consumer society, as an effect of the industrialisation and urbanisation, a majority of the Swedish population were getting dependent upon purchasing their everyday products in order to survive. Swedish snus was no exception to this changing course of time.

From having been able to grow your own tobacco for household use, making your own Swedish snus according to your own preference, you were now forced to buy your snus, either from any of the small snus or tobacco factories around town, at a tobacco grocer, or at the local tobacco shed. Generally you bought your loose Swedish snus by bulk weight.

Portion packed snus in pouches didn’t exist by then, but is a modern invention first introduced during the 1970’s. Back then, the loose Swedish snus was put into different sorts of paper packages, most commonly a a simple paper cone.

You could also get your Swedish snus in a so called ‘Kardus’, a pre-prepared carton with specified weight and content. Pre-packed smaller boxes or containers of Swedish snus did also occur. These were mostly oval in shape and made from pressed and waxed parer. Ordinarily however, you had your own personal box and just filled it up with Swedish snus when needed, much like Swedsnus products today. 

Swedish snus boxes in silver from the 1700’s, foremost used by the nobility and the wealthy.

A box or container should preferably be personal and express something about the owner’s personality, profession or interests. To a certain extent there was also a social interplay connected to the use of Swedish snus, which with time came to reach above the social structures of society. It was both common practice and polite to introduce yourself or greet someone by passing forward your box to offer a ‘pinch’ of Swedish snus. 

No wonder then, the importance to present a nice looking or personal box. Those who could afford it often used a box made out of pewter, tin, silver, or in some cases even more noble materials. The ordinary man most commonly made his own box, mostly from simpler materials such as wood, but often with great care and attention to detail.

The Swedish Snus today

What makes the Swedish snus so unique, in comparison to other oral tobacco products, is that it is produced in a process very similar to pasteurisation, which considerably minimize the primary group of carcinogenic substances in tobacco. Until recently, Swedish snus was classified as foodstuff in Sweden and most manufacturers are still complying with these rules and regulations set by the Swedish National Food Agency.

The Swedish NFA has established that the use of a box of Swedish snus pouches does not amount to any increased health risks and that the limits for unwanted substances in Swedish snus is the same as for food in general.

A number of medical scientists claims that Swedish snus has a considerable positive effect on public health.

This is evident in countries such as Sweden and Norway, who has more snus users than smokers.

It results in a much lower number of tobacco related diseases and thus also a much lower mortality rate related to smoking, particularly among Scandinavian men.

A widespread use of Swedish snus results in low numbers of tobacco related diseases.

This unique connection is documented in a large number of epidemiological studies, amongst other things showing that Sweden has got the lowest risk to be affected by lung cancer of all industrialised countries.

Within the boundaries of international research about tobacco consumption there is an expressively established paradox, known by scientists as ”The Swedish Experience”.

It all has to do with the statistic fact stating that ”the risk for a man to die in a tobacco related disease is smaller in Sweden than within any other European country, despite that tobacco consumption is on a comparable level to other European countries, measured in kilogram.” 

The great difference is thus the fact that Swedish men does not smoke to the same extent, but uses Swedish snus instead. An estimation shows that more than one million swedes today uses snus on a regular basis and 6200 tons of Swedish snus is used each year in Sweden. Statistics brought forward by the world’s largest manufacturer of Swedish snus, the company Swedish Match, furthermore shows that 18% of Swedish men uses snus daily, while the amount of daily smokers amongst Swedish men is only 10%, which constitutes the lowest amount of smokers in Europe.

Because of this, a large number of countries worldwide have now started to show serious interest into the positive effects on public health that Swedish snus brings among tobacco users. This is also reflected in the increasing popularity of Swedish snus internationally.

Read more about Swedish snus and Health.
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