Overall, I’d say a stereotype is purveyed suggesting that Europeans are healthier than North Americans. It’s true that obesity, and therefore all obesity related complications, is statistically less of a problem in Europe. Drinking and driving is less common, healthcare and preventative measures are accessed on a more regular basis. But if our time in the Netherlands and Germany taught me anything about my peers in those cultures, it is that they can smoke. Can and do smoke LOTS of cigarettes, preferably the rather rough and beastly brand of Marlboro Reds that, should you smoke one in a rum-weakened state of peer pressure, make you feel like dying the next morning. While, for the most part, friends my age back home don’t smoke regularly, our European friends embrace the tobacco culture much more casually while scorning Americans for sitting lazily in our cars during our commute.
Here in Norway, however, Marlboro Reds haven’t been able to take a stronghold in the hearts (and lungs) of the masses because their hearts (and upper lips) have already been stolen by snus. Technically speaking, snus is a moist tobacco product meant to be placed under the top lip, different from what Americans would think of as traditional chewing tobacco in that a lower sodium content means you don’t have to spit while snusing. It comes in a similar puck-shaped container to it’s spitting-required counterpart, but is more commonly pre-packaged conveniently in little pouches, ready to be placed in the mouth of the eager Scandinavian who is seeking a buzz. Although the health consequences of snus are disputed by some, the EU has banned the sale of snus, with only Sweden and Norway being exempt from that restriction. And despite claims of lower levels of nicotine and carcinogens (and the widely agreed upon assertion that snus is much less dangerous than smoking), my laymen’s eye notes that the stuff is addictive at the very least.
When you think of chewing tobacco in the U.S., you probably associate it with athletes (maybe baseball or hockey players) and hicks. The (disgusting) spitting is most telltale sign of a chewer, pop bottles full of spit can make a house occupied by hockey players into a field occupied by landmines. Since the tobacco is generally loose, you may also visualize men with black remnants of chew littered between their teeth. It’s neither appealing nor attractive, and it’s not all that common either. Here, on the other hand, it’s not so obvious. Since snusers don’t need to spit, they can remain incognito with ease. However, they don’t really need to go to lengths to hide their habit, because it’s not considered a vice, more of a cultural norm. And once you start looking, you see that the signature spitting is replaced by the telltale swollen upper lip. Turn left, turn right, and you’ll feel like you are in Whoville surrounded by Whos. Not just boy-Whos either, women seem to be equally as fond of this social activity.
Nothing about this snus obsession really bothers me. The lack of smoke is truly a welcomed relief, considering that in east Germany the little dive bars we frequented didn’t seem to care about the smoking bans and Michigan hasn’t even caught up with the modern world yet to pass such legislation. Without the spitting and the need for saliva receptacles, it doesn’t offend the way that American chewing tobacco would. But just as I didn’t come back from the Netherlands or Germany smoking hardcore tobacco products, I won’t be returning from Norway looking like a resident of Whoville. We may have processed food, very little agricultural oversight, and a tendency to be overweight, but I myself have standards that prevent me from casually adopting a nicotine addiction in the name of cultural assimilation!