On a recent afternoon in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, a Swedish flag sagged outside of a new pop-up shop. Inside, a 21-year-old salesman with a neatly trimmed beard and a chambray shirt stood behind a tiled counter that could have been repurposed from any one of the trendy coffee shops nearby. The store was furnished with Ikea chairs, tasteful art prints, scented candles, and a prominent sign that hung on every wall: “WARNING: This Product Can Cause Mouth Cancer.”
The Swedish Tobacconist pop-up sells authentic Swedish snus (rhymes with juice), a smokeless and spitless tobacco that comes in pouches like miniature tea bags that users hide under their upper lips. In Sweden, where snus originated, nearly one in five men partake in the discrete activity — more than double the number who smoke cigarettes.
This pop-up was opened by Swedish Match, a Stockholm-based company, to spread the gospel of a healthier, hipper alternative to cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Swedish Match seems to think snus has the potential to catch on with the same crowd that made other aspects of the Swedish aesthetic popular. Their ideal customer might shop for Ikea furniture or wear Acne Studios. Maybe they've rocked one of those tiny Fjällräven backpacks.
But it isn’t working. On a good day, the shop serves 10, maybe 15 customers. This was not a good day. The place was empty.
Matthew Ortega, the head salesman at the The Swedish Tobacconist, is among the few people the store converted to the snus side. Prior to working there, he smoked cigarettes every day and had never even heard of snus. Now, it’s his nicotine delivery method of choice.
“[Snus] is like the feeling of waking up in the morning and having your coffee and your cigarette on an empty stomach,” said Ortega. “Last night I went through two cans’ worth.”
Even though snus has been available in the US since 2007, it hasn’t been able to cash in on the growing unpopularity of smoking like e-cigarettes and vaping have. Earlier this week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 2015 was the lowest year on record for cigarette smoking in America. But as a whole, the American snus industry does between $200 and $250 million in retail sales each year, according to a representative from Swedish Match. In Scandinavia, sales from snus are more than three times as high but still puny compared to America’s $3.5 billion e-cigarette business.
“There’s a lot of inherent challenges in bringing a product like snus to a US market,” said Joe Ackerman, the head of marketing at Swedish Match’s North American division.
Even if Swedish Match can find a way to make snus trend, it will still be subject to strict regulation. That may change though as Swedish Match is in the midst of a tug-of-war with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the warning signs that are affixed to every can of snus — the same ones that hang inside The Swedish Tobacconist. In 2014, Swedish Match petitioned the FDA to soften the warning label on its cans of snus so that it reads, “No tobacco product is safe, but this product presents substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes.”
Ackerman explained that research has consistently shown that while snus has harmful side effects, it isn’t nearly as bad for you as a cigarette. One independent review from 2008 concluded that people who used snus were at least half as likely to contract oral cancer compared to people who smoked.
“From a public health point of view, if snus keeps you from smoking, its benefits far outweigh its risks,” said Kristin Sainani, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, to The New York Times in 2014.
The FDA is expected to make a decision on Swedish Match’s request to modify the label any day now.
Back in The Swedish Tobacconist, Ortega looked out the window at the late brunch crowd moseying past the store. He checked his phone and used his thumb and forefinger to pluck out a snus packet from his upper lip that had been tucked away for at least 30 minutes.
The pop-up closes at the end of the year, so the window of opportunity for Swedish Match to convert the kids in Brooklyn is closing.
As for Ortega, he’s been offered a position to join the company full time and will travel to Sweden in February, where he said, “The snus is stronger.”