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Concern is growing across the Premier League over claims that dozens of footballers are addicted to the semi-legal tobacco product “snus”.Several players have been caught on camera appearing to be using snus, which comes in the form of a small moist pouch of powdered tobacco which is inserted behind the lip, in the dugout during top-tier games. According to The Athletic, Premier League players have been openly using the cigarette alternative in the dressing room. At some clubs it has become increasingly popular among teenage academy players, some of whom use it while playing.
Bertrand Traore, the Aston Villa forward, and Mark Gillespie, the Newcastle back-up goalkeeper, have been spotted popping something behind their upper lips while on the subs’ bench recently, though Traore denies it was snus.
Snus usually comes in small, tea bag-looking, postage stamp-sized pouches and is usually placed between the upper lip and gum, which releases nicotine from the tobacco into the bloodstream. It is a similar looking product to nicotine pouches, which contain no tobacco, which are legal in the UK and have been used by children in schools. While some players find using snus a way to relax before matches, others use higher-strength brands for a “lift” which they feel gives them an extra edge on the pitch. In the US, similar types of smokeless tobacco were banned by baseball’s governing body in 2018 over fears of its link with oral cancer after becoming a regular habit among a large number of players. Snus is legal to use but illegal to make and sell in the UK and Europe under a 1992 European Union law, under which Sweden is exempt, although it is readily available online. Yet snus is part of day-to-day life in Nordic countries. In Sweden, where it originated in the 18th century, it is legally sold and is a popular cigarette alternative among young people, driving down daily smoking rates to 4 percent. In Denmark it became so prevalent among school children that the government banned its use during school hours.
The Royal College of Physicians has said snus is “1,000 times less harmful than cigarettes” and the product has a good reputation on social media. But now the UK’s Professional Players Association (PFA) said that while a growing number of players are using snus, “several” are receiving help for addiction. Lee Johnson, the manager of Hibernian in Scotland, told The Athletic he estimates up to 40 percent of all players are using the drug. “It’s getting worse and we need to educate these lads because it’s highly addictive,” he said. “I don’t feel they understand the true threat of it over the long term.”Though nicotine is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s monitoring list, it is not among the organisation’s banned substances. As such, players using snus aren’t breaking any rules other than those that may have been set internally at their clubs.This is not the first time that snus has caught the attention of the media. At Euro 2016, Leicester City and England player Jamie Vardy was photographed with a tin of Thunder Ultra, an extra strong variant, before England training, causing a flurry of coverage. Former Celtic coach Neil Lennon was also a regular user of the drug. In his autobiography, published the same year, Vardy wrote: “I used to have the odd fag on a night out at Fleetwood, but one of the lads introduced me to snus when I signed for Leicester and I found they helped me chill out. A lot more footballers use them than people realise, and some lads even play with them during matches.” There was another burst of coverage in 2018, when the Daily Mail found a pouch in the Leicester City dugout.
It’s undeniable that snus is used by players in the UK all the way down to the grassroots. “It’s ridiculously prevalent,” one active non-league player, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells VICE World News. “Particularly in London, it’s really big… at one of my old clubs most of the players were using it before, even during games, on the way to games, wherever.”There is an obvious reason for athletes to prefer snus to smoking, namely that it doesn’t inhibit fitness by damaging the lungs. There is broad agreement that using snus is considerably less harmful than smoking cigarettes. Some managers and coaches feel that snus can harm a player’s form. “In one dressing room we had two lads who were known to do it and the coaches believed it had an adverse effect on their game,” the player said. “Whether it’s scientifically true or not, I don’t actually know, but they felt the attitude the players had, the energy they had out on the pitch, was harmed by doing snus pre-match. It was definitely frowned upon.”With divergent views among players, managers and coaches on whether snus is detrimental to performance, different clubs have taken different approaches. While some have banned it outright and introduced disciplinary action and fines for players caught using it, others have taken a more laissez-faire approach. The PFA said it will launch a campaign this summer warning players of the potential health effects. Due to its nicotine content, it can be addictive. According to a 2019 report by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, “use of Swedish snus probably increases the risk of oesophageal and pancreatic cancer” along with “the risk of high blood pressure and lethality after myocardial infarction and stroke.” Snus may not be risk-free, then, but nor is it the narcotic scourge portrayed by some. “The whole thing about cigarettes – and this is a misconception around snus – is that it’s not the nicotine that causes the disease, death and all the rest of it, it’s all the stuff that’s in the smoke,” says Harry Shapiro, director of DrugWise. “I can understand why people are worried they can’t give up snus but, if you actually look at the medical harms, it’s way better that they are doing this than smoking.“I always say you have to look at the relative harms of snus, or e-cigs, whatever it is, in comparison to smoking. Footballers were notorious smokers and drinkers in the past, particularly smokers… it’s pretty obvious that this is a far safer way of consuming nicotine.”