The weather's been hanging around 60. Finally! The pregnant pods feel comfortable enough to ache into bloom: hydrangeas, azaleas, lilacs. The tree-lined streets are bushy as green leaves dapple the sidewalk with shadows beneath the sun. I love spring in Manhattan!
Earlier this week I went to dinner with a friend on the Upper East Side (a delicious tapas place called Vespa). We sat outside in a hidden courtyard behind the restaurant. It was a lovely feeling: perhaps like a bear might feel coming out of hibernation and taking its first few breaths of fresh air.
And then a table of smokers sat next to us.
"Do you mind?" I asked, suggesting they find another place to puff.
"We're outside," one guy answered. "It's legal."
That wasn't the point. The point was I was breathing in their nasty fumes, which was ruining my chi and health. But I knew I wasn't going to change their small minds, so my friend and I went inside to finish our meal.
A situation like this happens several times every spring and summer. Even during the colder months, I tend to get stuck behind a smoker walking down the sidewalk.
It's revolting. And I have no problem telling smoker friends, or strangers, so.
My friend Jon recently traded in his cigarettes for a product called Snus (pronounced "snoose"). Created in Sweden, Snus is a smokeless, flavored tobacco product. It's different from snuff because when it's placed between one's cheek and gum, it doesn't make the person spit. And several studies argue that it's also less harmful.
Brad Rodu, professor of tobacco studies at the Brown Cancer Center at the University of Louisville, is one of the most prominent proponents of "harm reduction" in the US. He has written many positive reports comparing Swedish Snusers to American smokers, otherwise known as the "Swedish Experiment."
The American Council on Science and Health published Rodu's summary: there is no demonstrable correlation between the use of Swedish snus and oral cancer, nor has any link been shown between the use of Snus and intestinal or esophageal cancer. Mortality in cancer is not elevated among Swedish Snus users, and the risk of cardiovascular diseases is much lower in this group than among smokers.
Yet other forms of smokeless tobacco, such as snuff, are a major cause of oral, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer. That's because they include high levels of cancer-causing chemicals: nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Snuff products actually deliver more cancer-causing nitrosamines than cigarettes do. But nitrosamine content is far lower in Snus.
Stephen S. Hecht, PhD, professor of cancer prevention at the University of Minnesota, told WebMD that Snus is made with a special process to help control nitrosamine levels. Perhaps that's because in Sweden, Snus is regulated under the Swedish food legislation as a food product; the sanitation requirements are the same as those used in food production.
But there are still carcinogen levels in Snus.
"Nitrosamine levels in Snus are 100 times greater than levels of nitrosamines in foods like nitrite-preserved meats," Hecht said.
Even though it's not a harmless product, it's still a lot better than cigarettes or snuff. If people just quit the latter for the former, nicotine addicts' health would probably improve. However studies show that the overwhelming pattern is to use Snus along with cigarettes.
This isn't an accident.
In 2006, major U.S. cigarette companies bought the major smokeless tobacco brands. And the two major brands of Snus? They're from leading cigarette makers Altria/Philips Morris (Marlboro Snus) and RJ Reynolds (Camel Snus). Snus is being co-marketed with cigarettes; they don't want you to quit they make more money from cigarette sales than anything else on the planet.
There are 50 million people in the U.S. who are regular nicotine users. Each year, more than 400,000 of those people die from smoking-related diseases. This isn't news. It's sad but true: many people don't invest in the future, they live for today. And the World Health Organization has published estimates showing that smoking will only increase in the foreseeable future.
But there are still a lot of people, like me, who try hard to stay healthy.
Clearly there is no safe form of tobacco use. Snus may not ultimately reduce the harmful effects taken in by a nicotine addict. But it does reduce the harm cigarettes cause onto non-smokers.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor.