Finland has vaping laws that are about as strict as they can be, short of actually banning it. There’s a ban on all flavors other than tobacco; a total ban on advertising; and if there’s an area where you can’t smoke, that will mean you can’t vape, either. Online and cross-border sales are illegal.
This is despite the fact that around 900,000 people in the far-northern European country of 5.5 million smoke cigarettes. An adult smoking rate of nearly 20 percent, though declining, is substantially higher than in the United States. Over 5,000 people die of smoking-related causes in Finland each year.
A sales ban has seemingly seen Finland miss out on the snus revolution that has benefited neighboring Sweden and Norway, too. Snus is an oral tobacco product which, like vapes, is far safer than smoking and has enabled many people to switch.
“There have been pharmaceutical companies involved in the campaign for a smoke-free Finland, and they don’t like vapes.”
One thing Finland does have is a booming nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) market. The patches or gums can be widely purchased without a prescription—although evidence has shown vapes to be more effective smoking cessation tools.
Even in this difficult climate, many people in Finland are adopting tobacco harm reduction. An estimated 38,000 people currently use nicotine vapes. One of them is Jari Ollikka. He’s the chair and cofounder of Vapers Finland ry—an association created by and for people who vape. I spoke with him on a video call to ask about the situation in his country, with national elections coming up in April.
Kiran Sidhu: Can you tell me a bit about Vapers Finland?
Jari Ollikka: Vapers Finland is an officially registered association, established in 2015. It exists for and by vaping consumers and it has no ties to the vaping industry, vaping shops or retailers. It has no ties to the tobacco or medical industry. Our funding comes from member fees.
We publish articles about vaping based on scientific facts, and we correct articles that spread misinformation that come out in the Finnish media. We are consulted by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health when there’s any tobacco-related acts [of parliament] to be discussed. Our responses are published in full and given to the parties involved in creating a new act.
We used to organize vape festivals. But nowadays, since the stricter Tobacco Act in 2016, it is impossible to organize such an event. The indoor smoking ban applies to vaping, too, and vape stores were part of the festival. And since there is also an advertising ban, they cannot participate anymore.
It sounds as if NRT is being pushed as the main avenue for people looking for help in quitting cigarettes. What’s behind this?
NRT is definitely the most popular cessation tool available. There was a time when it was only sold in pharmacies, but since 2006, NRT started to be sold in general stores.
There was a target of a “smoke-free Finland” by 2040. But then the goalpost changed: The target is now 2030. At the same time, Finland changed from wanting to be smoke-free to smoke-free and nicotine-free.
“The choice Finland wants to give people who wish to stop smoking is NRT—or cold turkey!”
There have been pharmaceutical companies involved in the campaign for a smoke-free Finland, and they don’t like vapes. And it is these that have benefited from pushing NRT. Also pharmacies want to get their share back from NRT sales because they are lobbying to end general sales of NRT, and allow NRT sales only in pharmacies.
Your neighbors in Sweden have recently reached “smoke-free” status—defined as less than 5 percent of the population smoking. Snus use in Sweden overtook cigarette smoking decades ago. What’s the story of the status of snus in Finland?
When Finland joined the EU in 1995, the sale of snus was banned [Sweden, also a member of the European Union, has an exemption from the EU’s snus prohibition]. Childishly, the government thought banning it will make people stop using it.
As a matter of fact, it is now used more than ever! Finland has a well-established illicit market for it; there are Facebook groups dedicated to it.
Legally, a private person coming from abroad is allowed to bring in a combined total of no more than 1 kilo of chewing, nasal and oral tobacco in one calendar day, for personal use. These products cannot be brought in as gifts. Online purchase of snus is also banned, and the same applies to nicotine pouches and nicotine liquids.
What’s stopping Finland from fully embracing vapes?
[Our government] does admit now that vaping is less harmful than smoking, but there’s no push to get people to use vapes as a way to quit smoking.
Finland is stuck in this “quit or die” method when it comes to smoking. There is no belief in harm reduction. The choice Finland wants to give people who wish to stop smoking is NRT—or cold turkey!
Vaping is seen as just being part of Big Tobacco businesses. Vapes are not considered as aids to quit smoking.
How do you envisage the future of vaping in Finland?
I think the government has done as much as they can do to try and stop people vaping.
The restriction on flavors [only tobacco-flavored or unflavored vapes are available, when most people who switch from smoking prefer other flavors], the blanket ban on advertising vape products, the restrictions of where you’re allowed to vape—all are parts of Finland’s war against vaping.
There will be parliamentary elections in April 2023, and some parties are pushing to legalize snus—mainly to get tax money. So I see this as a good chance to influence politicians to lift restrictions from vaping as well.
Mainly, allowing online sales would benefit most of the vapers—especially those who are living in areas where there are no vaping stores.
Photograph by icon0 via PublicDomainPictures.net