The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) has spent the summer grilling its biggest stars on their use of snus. This urgent investigation has followed the realisation several top-flight players – including Leicester striker Jamie Vardy and Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles – are busy stuffing the little packets of tobacco under their top lip before games and on the subs bench.
Quick have been both the PFA and major clubs to demonise this product. It wasn’t long, of course, before Gary Lineker weighed into the ill-informed mudslinging, describing his one-time use of snus as ‘absolute torture’. I’m surprised he didn’t blame Brexit.
Even England manager Gareth Southgate has felt the need to comment, confirming the prevalent use of snus and nicotine pouches – which do not contain tobacco – in the game. While he has at least acknowledged there must be a reason young, fit men are ordering snus online (it cannot be bought in the UK) and carry tins of nicotine pouches (which can), he doesn’t know what it is. So let me clear it up.
There is evidence emerging from the States that nicotine quickens reaction time, increases short bursts of power (anaerobic performance) and gives periods of alertness, useful when you are paid millions of pounds to win at all costs. Premiership footballers – elite athletes at the top of their game – know this.
Snus and in particular nicotine pouches – which do not contain tobacco – are a fast and much safer way to consume nicotine than smoking cigarettes, which cause cancer. It follows then, that if footballers become aware of a legal drug that can help increase their performance, they will find the safest way to take it.
That nicotine can have benefits is not news in Sweden of course, where snus has been enjoyed for 250 years and is an everyday stimulant as popular as coffee. Anyone who mocks these lifestyle choices should consider the Swedes will live in the first smoke-free nation in Europe (under 5 per cent) by the end of the month. They also have the lowest rates of lung and mouth cancers in the EU.
So how did our Nordic friends achieve this Christmas miracle? The answer is that the Swedish understand the relationship between tobacco and nictone, and cancer. The former causes it. The latter does not.
They acquired this knowledge through a history of having very few things grow naturally in their subarctic climate. Realising they could not produce quality tobacco, they pasteurised it. This allowed farmers to shape the leaves into blocks that sit and dissolve under the lip. While the allies in World War II created a generation of smokers by handing cigarettes out to troops, the Swedes stuck to their traditional, smoke-free and loose snus.
When a canny inventor finally stuffed the tobacco into an empty tea bag to hold the leaves in place in the early 1970s, Swedish Snus was born. Both it and nicotine pouches – which were invented by a start-up in the early 2000s – are now commonly used on both sides of the Atlantic by professional athletes. And there is a good reason.
A 2021 study by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition monitored college archers before and after using nicotine strips. It concluded nicotine had a positive effect on attention, ‘increased skeletal muscle contraction force’ and delayed fatigue. The archers’ scores also ‘significantly increased’ after taking nicotine, with the report stating the drug ‘enhances the performance of archery athletes by increasing cognitive function’.
Similar research by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, which tested the strength and athletic performance of 16 non-smoking healthy males aged 24-29 in 2018, showed ‘peak and average power output were significantly greater following nicotine administration’.
None of these studies are highlighted by any of the groups so vehemently opposed to nicotine, including the World Health Organisation. And they are overlooked by the very experts assigned to educating Premiership footballers on ‘the facts’ behind snus.
The reality is nicotine is addictive. But its use by humans as a stimulant predates the pyramids and will continue, no matter the restrictions. We need, therefore, to embrace the benefits and eliminate the risks, which are only present when nicotine is acquired through combusted tobacco. And the stakes are high.
England is at least nine years behind its 2030 smoke-free target, according to Cancer Research UK. It is hard to ignore the fact that with the widespread use of snus, used in conjunction with the promotion of vaping, Sweden has become a country where comparatively few people get lung or mouth cancer and hardly anyone smokes.
The UK government meanwhile, has just finished a public consultation on banning disposable vapes and the flavours smokers making the switch from cigarettes have said are so appealing. Nicotine pouches – which can be purchased by anyone – need regulation to stop access to them by under 18s. But it is paramount for the 80,000 people who die each year from smoking, we do not react to fearmongering by banning such a life-saving, harm-reduction product.
If Rishi Sunak and new health minister Victoria Atkins were brave enough to examine snus and nicotine pouches in relation to the Nordic success, they would understand an indisputable fact: The Swedes didn’t conquer smoking despite the widespread use of nicotine, they did so because of it.