A smoke-free society is possible – lessons from Sweden

In November 2022, Sweden achieved something that once seemed almost impossible: the nation’s smoking rate dropped to a mere 5.6% among people over the age of 16 – bringing it tantalisingly close to the coveted status of being a smoke-free society. To grasp the significance of this achievement, one must understand that a ‘smoke-free’ society is officially defined as having less than 5% of the population being smokers.

This milestone signifies a remarkable transformation from the dark days of 1963 when smoking prevalence in Sweden peaked at around 36%, with nearly half of its men addicted to cigarettes. Considering that Sweden’s population has grown by over 30% during this time, this equates to an astonishing 80% reduction in the overall number of smokers.

Historically, Sweden has maintained lower smoking rates compared to the rest of Europe; thanks in part to its longstanding openness to alternative products. When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, it secured an exemption from the EU’s ban on snus – a smokeless tobacco product. This foresight, combined with a willingness to explore safer alternatives, has played a pivotal role in bringing Sweden to the threshold of being a smoke-free society.

However, the most recent progress in the fight against smoking in Sweden has been significantly accelerated by the introduction of innovative, smoke-free nicotine-based alternative products over the last 15 years. Between 2006 and 2020, Sweden achieved a remarkable 60% reduction in smoking rates – the most substantial decline of any EU country during that period. In contrast, EU member-states recorded a 25% reduction… underscoring the profound impact of embracing harm reduction and innovative solutions.

Even among those in Sweden who continue to smoke, the number of cigarettes consumed is strikingly lower than their European counterparts. Daily cigarette consumption in Sweden averages a mere 9.1 cigarettes per person, compared to the EU average of 14.2 cigarettes per person. In fact, Sweden stands as the only European country where the average number of cigarettes smoked per day falls below ten.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is the current EU-wide smoking rate, which remains alarmingly high at 23%; nearly five times that of Sweden. Even in the three most populous EU countries – Germany, France and Italy – recent figures reveal smoking prevalence rates of 24%, 26% and 24% respectively. These figures persist despite extensive EU-wide tobacco control measures and concerted public health campaigns aimed at eradicating smoking.

So, what can we learn from Sweden’s journey toward being a smoke-free society? The answer is clear: it’s the nation’s open-mindedness and willingness to embrace alternative products that have propelled it to the brink of being a smoke-free society. By providing safer alternatives that are accessible and affordable, Sweden has achieved a transformation that others can replicate.

Sweden’s remarkable progress stands as an inspiring example for the world, proving that a smoke-free society is not a distant dream but an attainable reality. It’s a testament to the power of harm-reduction and innovation in reshaping our approach to tobacco control.

As we celebrate Sweden’s accomplishments, we should be motivated to emulate its success by fostering an environment where alternative products can flourish, helping millions of smokers worldwide break free from the grip of addiction. A smoke-free society is possible, and Sweden’s journey is a guiding light on the path to making it a reality for all.

The writer works with Harm Reduction Alliance, Ghana.

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