Sweden close to becoming 1st ‘smoke free’ country in Europe as daily use of cigarettes dwindles

Summer is in the air, cigarette smoke is not, in Sweden’s outdoor bars and restaurants.

As the World Health Organization marks “World No Tobacco Day” on May 31, Sweden, which has the lowest rate of smoking in the Europe Union, is close to declaring itself “smoke free” — defined as having fewer than 5% daily smokers in the population.

Many experts give credit to decades of anti-smoking campaigns and legislation, while others point to the prevalence of “snus,” a smokeless tobacco product that is banned elsewhere in the E.U. but is marketed in Sweden as an alternative to cigarettes.

Whatever the reason, the 5% milestone is now within reach. Only 6.4% of Swedes over 15 were daily smokers in 2019, the lowest in the E.U. and far below the average of 18.5% 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% last year.

“We like a healthy way to live, I think that’s the reason,” said Carina Astorsson, a Stockholm resident. Smoking never interested her, she added, because “I don’t like the smell; I want to take care of my body.”

The risks of smoking appear well understood among health-conscious Swedes, including younger generations. Twenty years ago, almost 20% 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 having smoked in 2021 — a slight increase on 2019. About a quarter smoke daily.

Sweden has gone further than most to stamp out cigarettes, and says it’s resulted in a range of health benefits, including a relatively low rate of lung cancer.

“We were early in restricting smoking in public spaces, first in school playgrounds and after-school centers, and later in restaurants, outdoor cafes and public places such as bus stations,” said Ulrika Årehed, secretary-general of the Swedish Cancer Society. “In parallel, taxes on cigarettes and strict restrictions on the marketing of these products have played an important role.”

She added that “Sweden is not there yet,” noting that the proportion of smokers is higher in disadvantaged socio-economic groups.

Also Read: No, vapes aren’t 95% less harmful than cigarettes. Here’s how this decade-old myth took off

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. Like in most of Europe, smoking isn’t allowed inside bars and restaurants, but since 2019 Sweden’s smoking ban also applies to their outdoor seating areas.

On May 30 night, the terraces of Stockholm were full of people enjoying food and drinks in the late-setting sun. There was no sign of cigarettes, but cans of snus could be spotted on some tables. Between beers, some patrons stuffed small pouches of the moist tobacco under their upper lips.

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.

“I don’t see any reason to put two harmful products up against each other,” Ms. Årehed said. “It is true that smoking is more harmful than most things you can do, including snus. But that said, there are many health risks even with snus.”

Some studies have linked snus to increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature births if used during pregnancy.

Swedes are so fond of their snus, a distant cousin of dipping tobacco in the United States, that they demanded an exemption to the EU’s ban on smokeless tobacco when they joined the bloc in 1995.

“It’s part of the Swedish culture, it’s like the Swedish equivalent of Italian Parma ham or any other cultural habit,” said Patrik Hildingsson, a spokesman for Swedish Match, Sweden’s top snus maker, which was acquired by tobacco giant Philip Morris last year.

He said policymakers should encourage the tobacco industry to develop less harmful alternatives to smoking such as snus and e-cigarettes.

“I mean, 1.2 billion smokers are still out there in the world. Some 100 million people smoke daily in the E.U. And I think we can (only) go so far with policymaking regulations,” he said. “You will need to give the smokers other less harmful alternatives, and a range of them.”

WHO, the U.N. health agency, says Turkmenistan, with a rate of tobacco use below 5%, is ahead of Sweden when it comes to phasing out smoking, but notes that’s largely due to smoking being almost nonexistent among women. For men the rate is 7%.

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 you include snus and similar products.

“Switching from one harmful product to another is not a solution,” WHO said in an email. “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.”

Also Read: U.S. adult cigarette smoking rate hits new all-time low

Tove Marina Sohlberg, a researcher at Stockholm University’s Department of Public Health Sciences, said Sweden’s anti-smoking policies have had the effect of stigmatizing smoking and smokers, pushing them away from public spaces into backyards and designated smoking areas.

“We are sending signals to the smokers that this is not accepted by society,” she said.

Paul Monja, one of Stockholm’s few remaining smokers, reflected on his habit while getting ready to light up.

“It’s an addiction, one that I aim to stop at some point,” he said. “Maybe not today, perhaps tomorrow.”

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Can ‘earthquake diplomacy’ help NATO chances for Sweden and Finland?

In the hours after two massive earthquakes hit southern Turkey, the well-oiled wheels of humanitarian assistance started turning in Sweden and Finland.

The Nordic nations are locked in something of a stalemate with Ankara over their NATO memberships — as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan holds up the process, demanding that Stockholm and Helsinki meet strict criteria before moving forward with ratification.

So could ‘earthquake diplomacy’ soften Turkey’s stance towards the NATO applicants?

It’s worked before in the region.

Back in 1999 a powerful quake hit near the Turkish city of İzmit, and the Greeks were among the first to respond with aid, despite decades of enmity between the two neighbours. A few months later when a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit Athens, the Turks reciprocated with help.

The show of neighbourly good faith led to Greece dropping its objections on Turkey becoming an EU candidate country — something policy makers in Finland and Sweden will be hoping to see repeated.

What aid have Sweden and Finland given?

The Swedes have so far given €3.3 million in humanitarian support, and sent more than 50 search and rescue experts, search dogs, and medical teams to Turkey.

“The core support that Sweden is already contributing makes a big difference on the ground in Türkiye and Syria,” said Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation Johan Forssell.

Forssell said his government acted “swiftly and resolutely” but Dr Paul Levin at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies said they could have moved faster.

“Sweden was late providing aid.”

“I don’t think that’s a lack of trying or will, but that Sweden is not good at swift disaster response,” he told Euronews, citing critical Royal Commissions into official responses to the 2004 Asia tsunami, and COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we are unfortunately not good at disaster response,” Levin said.

On the EU level, Sweden — which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Council —  convened the bloc’s Integrated Political Crisis Response mechanism last week, to coordinate all EU support for both Turkey and Syria at political level.

Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson and Ursula von der Leyen also announced they’ll organise an international donor conference for Turkey and Syria in March.

In Finland, the government response has been fairly fast and robust, and loudly telegraphed to Ankara.

Helsinki provided heated emergency accommodation, including tents and stoves, for 3,000 people; and coordinated delivery of supplies through NATO.

The Finns have also sent search and rescue experts, and also contribute multilaterally through the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, which has so far given $50 million (€46.65 million).

“Tens of thousands of people have died and the destruction is very extensive. The need for emergency accommodation in the area hit by the earthquake is huge,” said Finland’s Interior Minister Krista Mikkonen.

“By sending material assistance, Finland aims to help people meet their basic needs. It is important that we provide help to the earthquake area as soon as possible.”

What’s the situation in Ankara?

Whether Turkey’s government has the bandwidth to handle NATO applications during a time of unprecedented crisis is debatable.

With a general election still scheduled for 14 May, Erdoğan had been using Sweden (and to a lesser extent, Finland) as a political straw man, painting the country as a place that harboured terrorists and as a risk to Turkey’s national security.

If the election is somehow postponed, Erdogan might still need a bogeyman as a distraction to mounting political problems at home, a tactic that may not work so well a second time.

“The NATO news in Finland has not fully taken into account how this massive human catastrophe has changed the Turkish political landscape and discussion,” explained Ozan Yanar, a Finnish politician who was born in Turkey, and served as a Greens MP from 2015-2019.

“Right now all the Turkish focus is on these earthquakes, and it will stay on earthquakes for a very long time,” Yanar told Euronews.

Yanar said he thinks it unlikely any Turkish politician would try to shift the focus away from any official failings in earthquake preparedness or response, as they would find themselves “in the midst of huge political criticism.”

“People are angry Turkey was not ready for this, and the state actions after the earthquakes have been very slow. People would be harshly disappointed and criticise the regime if they would start to speak about NATO, which is not the main topic in Turkey right now,” said Yanar, who is running for parliament again in Finland’s spring elections.

What are the chances of 1999-style earthquake diplomacy?

Paul Levin from Stockholm University thinks the chances are low that anything Sweden and Finland do to help with humanitarian aid will move the needle for Turkey on ratifying NATO membership.

“I just dont see any real impact in terms of public relations on the Turkish side,” he said bluntly, describing a country currently in turmoil, with a “messy” political situation.

Quite the opposite: “If Erdogan sees he has been hurt by this, and sees he won’t be able to win the election, he has a strong incentive to pospone it,” said Levin.

“The more desperate he becomes politically, the more appealing those kind of tactics will be. I think he will do just about anything to get re-elected.”

That could mean continuing to demonise Stockholm in particular, for failing to deport Kurds that Turkey says are terror suspects.

Ankara wants Finland and Sweden to deport some 130 “terrorists” before it will approve their bids to join NATO. Erdogan declared in January that the Nordic countries must “hand over your terrorists,” with Sweden saying Turkey had made demands that could not — and would not — be met.

“Maybe it’s a bit early to speculate what will happen, but so far I have not seen any of the positive outcomes of diplomacy,” said Levin.

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Sweden, Turkey not expected to back down in NATO accession tug of war

Sweden said on Sunday that Turkey is asking for too much in exchange for allowing it to join NATO, as Ankara effectively demands the impossible – that Stockholm override a decision by its own Supreme Court. But analysts say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to retract its condition, at least not before the all-important presidential elections scheduled in June.

Sweden’s new conservative Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that, as far as he is concerned, Stockholm has done enough for Ankara.

“Turkey confirms that we have done what we said we would do. But they also say that they want things that we can’t and won’t give them,” Kristersson told the Forsvar Security Conference in Sweden.

Along with neighbouring Finland, Sweden made joining NATO its top foreign policy objective last year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jolted them from their official neutrality stretching back through the Cold War. However, Erdogan made Turkey’s green light conditional – accusing Sweden of giving safe haven to people linked to Kurdish militant group the PKK and to the Gulenist movement Turkey holds responsible for the 2016 failed coup.

Sweden – which has a large Kurdish diaspora of some 100,000 people – responded to Erdogan’s demands at a NATO summit back in June. Sweden and Finland agreed to “commit to prevent the activities of the PKK” on its territory.

Stockholm then reversed an embargo on arms sales to Turkey and distanced itself from the YPG – a Syrian militia Western countries championed for its role fighting the Islamic State group but anathema to Ankara because of its close ties to the PKK, which has waged intermittent guerrilla campaigns against the Turkish state since 1984 and is classed as a terrorist organisation by the EU and US as well as Turkey.

But Erdogan demands the extradition of journalist Bulent Kenes, an ex-editor-in-chief of the now closed Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman, for his alleged role in the foiled coup.

‘Not a political question’ 

The Swedish Supreme Court rejected Turkey’s demand in December, on the grounds that Kenes risked persecution for his politics if he were sent to Turkey.

This is a judicial matter in a country run according to the separation of powers, and that gives the Swedish government no choice, noted Hakan Gunneriusson, a professor of political science at Mid Sweden University.

“Specific individuals can’t be expelled to Turkey from Sweden if there’s no legal foundation for it. It is a legal procedure, not a political question,” Gunneriusson said.

If anything, Turkey’s intransigence on the question will only strengthen Swedish resolve, suggested Toni Alaranta, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.

“Both Sweden and Finland are applying for NATO in order to secure our [political order based on] rule of law in times of possible external attack – not to throw it in a dustbin,” Alaranta said.

This approach is popular amongst the Swedish electorate, according to a poll published by newspaper Dagens Nyheter last week, which showed that 79 percent of Swedes favour standing by the court ruling even if it holds up NATO accession.

Turkey’s stance is expected to soon become the only remaining obstacle to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, since 28 of the Western alliance’s 30 members have validated their requests and the Hungarian parliament is set to give its approval later this month.

‘Happy to wait things out’

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto lamented that Ankara will probably not allow the two countries to join before Turkey’s presidential polls in June. Yet Sweden and Finland could well end up waiting for longer.

Turkey is no stranger to rowing with fellow NATO members – as demonstrated by Erdogan’s public spats with French President Emmanuel Macron and, especially, Ankara’s decision to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence system in 2017 in the face of US uproar followed by sanctions. Erdogan also has a history of making life difficult for European countries to help advance his priorities in the Middle East – most notably when he threatened in 2019 to let millions of migrants into Europe unless European powers quietened their criticism of Turkey’s offensive on Kurdish forces in Syria.

Of course, Russia’s war against Ukraine is the West’s most pressing geopolitical concern, making it a natural priority to bring Sweden and Finland into the NATO umbrella. But the war in Ukraine also highlight’s Turkey’s importance to the Western alliance, even if Ankara has been an awkward NATO member over the past decade. So far Erdogan has kept ties with both Russia and Ukraine while alienating neither – and that bore fruit for the rest of the world when Turkey brokered alongside the UN a deal to export Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea in July, before renewing the deal in November after Russia briefly withdrew.

“Erdogan approaches the NATO alliance with the belief that Turkey’s interests are not taken seriously enough and that NATO needs Turkey,” observed Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St. Lawrence University in New York state and the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. “He doesn’t see acrimony within the alliance as necessarily a bad thing, so long as it underlines that Turkey’s interests need to be addressed.”

The Turkish government’s “core assumptions about how Western governments should pursue Turkey’s enemies are at odds with basic principles of rule of law”, Eissenstat said, adding that he thought: “Ankara knew this at the onset but believes the process serves its interests.”

“Ankara is perfectly happy to wait things out,” he reasoned. “Those calculations may well change after Turkish elections when the domestic benefits decrease, but until then I doubt Ankara is likely to budge.”

Indeed, Erdogan faces a tricky re-election campaign in June amid a woeful economic context, as a currency and debt crisis has racked Turkey since 2018.

“The key issues in Turkey’s elections are, of course, mostly domestic – the abysmal economy and the question of [Syrian] refugees,” Eissenstat pointed out. “But Erdogan clearly benefits from taking a tough stance on Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO.”

Not only do the Turkish public like to “see Turkish leaders playing important roles in the world”, Eissenstat said, it is also “probably true that many share Erdogan’s distrust of the West and belief that Western governments have given safe haven to Turkey’s enemies”.

So the Swedish-Turkish tug of war is set to continue. However, perhaps the most revealing statement at that Swedish defence conference was not Kristersson’s refusal to override the Supreme Court – but rather NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s suggestion that the alliance has already extended its security umbrella to the two Scandinavian countries. “It is inconceivable that NATO would not act if the security of Sweden and Finland were threatened,” he said.

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Global Conversation: Sweden is next for the EU’s presidency in January

From January 2023, Sweden will take the presidency of the European Union. The last time that happened was in 2009, and a lot has changed in the European Union dynamics and in the world since then.

Euronews spoke to the Minister of European Affairs of Sweden Jessica Roswall to discuss the proposals for the next six months.

Support for Ukraine

Many problems have hit the European Union in recent years, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine created a complex web of problems. What will be your approach during the presidency, some concrete measures and actions that you might take regarding this?

“For the Swedish presidency, it will be a priority to keep the unity and to keep supporting Ukraine with all kinds of measures,” said Roswall. “Concretely, it’s economic, military, humanitarian, and also political help to handle this hard time. Also, of course, we have to keep up with the sanctions and so forth against Russia.”

Will the European Union be able to have the resources for that military (support) and for financial assistance in the reconstruction, as soon is possible?

“I think we have to (because) the Ukrainians are not only fighting for their freedom, they’re also fighting for our freedom.”


Security and unity. You mentioned that these are important topics for the Swedish presidency and the prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, has mentioned them several times. When do you foresee that Sweden, as well as Finland, will join NATO, especially considering Turkey’s obstacles to that?

“I don’t have an answer to that, but as soon as possible is our hope. Of course, we are doing this in close cooperation with Finland because this is a security issue for both of us. But I think that also the war in Ukraine has symbolised, or showed, that the security for Europe depends on staying together and we have to keep the unity in Europe.”

Sanctioning Russia

_The EU is now sanctioning Russia. It has another package underway. How far should you go with this strategy, considering the EU’s own interests and goals in terms of supporting Ukraine?

“Well, when it comes to Russia, I think the EU has shown really good unity by putting forward all these sanctions packages. And now we are discussing the ninth package. I think it’s important to put that in place and move forward as long as it takes. We have to move forward when it comes to sanctions and other pressures that we can make. And we also see high inflation. We have a lot of crises in parallel, in the EU and in the world. But we have to keep up the support to Ukraine and also to keep up the pressure on Russia.”

Energy crisis

_What is the price that European Union citizens are willing to pay, considering there are so many economic problems, that are mentioned a lot of times via strikes and demonstrations?

“All of our governments in all the member states are struggling to help their households and also the companies, to handle this winter and also to be prepared for the next winter. It will be, of course, of high importance for the Swedish presidency to handle all these questions. And so I think we have to do a lot of things, both when it comes to national arrangements. It has to be on a national level, not only at the EU level.”

So there’s all this discussion about capping prices, about joint procurement. What do you consider to be the easiest way to build consensus in terms of having a supply of affordable energy? I know, for instance, that you are also very keen on nuclear, but it’s not the same in all European Union countries.

“Well, energy is, for me, something very closely linked with the green transition, which is another priority for Sweden. I think that we need to talk about energy together with the green transition, but also to remember that energy is also connected to security. So we have these two legs to stand on when it comes to energy.”

Green deal

_The green deal is the motivation to support a sustainable future. But within the current crisis, how ambitious can the European Union be? Will it be able to compete with massive investments in energy transition, like the US or China are doing?

“So, the EU is putting a lot of money and effort into the green transition and I think that our industries are very good and at the forefront. I see that a lot in Sweden, and we can combine both green transitions with competitiveness and innovation. But we also have a lot of different measures within the EU: we have the Recovery Fund, we have the RepowerEU, that can actually help both people and companies to do this transition.”

Border controls

Your coalition government has the support of an extreme-right party that, as in many other countries, defends a kind of “European fortress” model. What are your proposals in terms of border management and also processing the cases of people that want to enter the EU, with respect to human rights?

“I think that most parties in Sweden think that we need to have the (EU) Migration Asylum Pact in place. So, for the Swedish presidency, it’s important to move the negotiations forward. This is a hard negotiation because there are a lot of member states that think differently about this. So this will be a difficult (topic) to negotiate. But we have to and our ambition is to move forward in a lot of those different (legislative) acts that are combined in the migration pact.”

Rule of Law

_Despite the new compromise this week, Hungary still has some EU funds frozen until it implements some judicial and anticorruption reforms. Will this be a good strategy in terms of having those two countries, and maybe others, come to the liberal democratic style of governing?

“For me, the EU values and rule of law are of (high) importance. These are fundamental values that we need. That’s the reason why we are a Union that people in other countries want to connect to because we have these values. So, we have to defend them every day. During the Swedish presidency, and every presidency, we have to defend them. We have different tools in the toolbox. And now we see that one of them, the conditionality mechanism, was actually put into force. And that is a very good sign. I think that is the strategy to move forward, we should continue using the different tools in the toolbox.”

_So you think that the European Commission is doing good work in using this mechanism as a central tool for having the rule of law respected within the union borders?

“Yes, exactly. I think that we can see that we actually can use these different tools that we have.”

_My last question before finishing. What do you think of the corruption scandal that is involving the European Parliament? Is this an isolated case or maybe the tip of the iceberg in terms of other institutions that are in the European Union?

“I cannot answer that. I think it’s a serious accusation, but we need to see the investigations (conclusions). But we always need to discuss corruption and how we can work against corruption.”

To watch the full interview please click on the player icon above.

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