FOI: University of Bath

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Paper Exposing Illegal Online Sales of Snus in EU

On 22 January 2012, the journal Tobacco Control published an article entitled 'How online sales and promotion of snus in the European Union (EU) contravenes current legislation.'[1] Authored by researchers from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, the article highlighted that snus was being sold illegally across the EU via the Internet, contravening three EU Directives and Swedish national legislation.

To explain: Snus is a traditional Scandinavian Smokeless Tobacco product, predominantly used in Sweden where it is regulated under the Swedish Food Act. There are EU-wide bans on the sale of snus outside Sweden and on the online promotion of tobacco products. However, as this paper showed, there is relatively little control on either the online sale or promotion of snus across Europe. The European Ban on snus has also been challenged in the past - in 2004 by Swedish Match and one of its suppliers - without success. (See: Snus: EU Ban on Snus Sales)

The Tobacco Control article generated a heated reaction from snus users, upset that their usual channels for acquiring snus could be threatened. The online reaction included threats to the authors as well as Freedom of Information requests to the University of Bath. These came from same person.

Swedish Match Demands Evidence

The Tobacco Control Journal uploaded the article on Saturday 21 January 2012. On the following Monday, even before the University of Bath had issued a press release about the snus article,[2] one of the authors received a phone call from Swedish Match. Patrik Hildingsson, its Vice President for Public Affairs, had been alerted by an early news item at the website of Swedish NGO TobaksFakta[3] and requested a copy of the article.

In a subsequent email on the same day - 23 January - he said he was "interested in those parts were you conclude directly or indirectly any wrongdoings by Swedish Match".[4] Hildingsson was advised that the paper demonstrated that a Swedish Match website promoted illegal sales of snus. The website in question is called GeneralSnus.com and it advertises the company's premium snus brand General. GeneralSnus links directly to several websites operated by the top four vendors of snus that sell snus illegally to non-Swedish EU citizens.[5] The official domain name registration shows that GeneralSnus is owned by Swedish Match.[6]

Snus User Outrage

Within a few days, the news about the Tobacco Control paper reached the snus community. The first person to flag the article on illegal snus sales was Tim Haigh, a British blogger on snus issues. On 30 January 2012, he wrote about it on his own blog, snusify.com, and posted a similar message on snuson.com, an online forum for snus users, stating that the authors provided the “usual one sided view against snus with a feeling of venom”.[7] Haigh further claimed that Northerner, the biggest online snus retailer, had stopped selling snus from Sweden to EU countries in response to the article, and suggested snus could still be bought from the United States, or by making a "snus run" to Sweden.[8]

On his blog Haigh provides a screen grab and a downloadable version of the Tobacco Control article (the file conveniently called TobaccoNazi.pdf). This would appear to contravene the copyright rules of the journal's publisher, the BMJ Group. Indeed in April 2012, Haigh reported on his facebook blog that the BMJ had been in touch with him over this contravention.

Comment on Facebook Snusify.com, accessed 31/5/2012


By his own admission, Haigh has close contacts to Swedish Match and Northerner. As a regular product reviewer for Swedish Match, he maintains his own YouTube channel reporting his work. The credits of his reviews state that the products were provided by Swedish Match or the Northerner.[9] Another video reports how he was hosted by Swedish Match and taken around Stockholm in May 2011.[10] His Facebook page shows that he has had meetings with Public Affairs people from Swedish Match and representatives of lobby group European Smokeless Tobacco Council (ESTOC) over the past two years. He discussed resisting the EU ban on snus with them.

For more detail, see the TobaccoTactics page on Tim Haigh.

Abusive Language in the Online Snus Community

Haigh's message generated a lot of response. Some forum members comments used abusive language about the authors, such as “biggest bastards” and “anti-tobacco nazis”. One forum member, 'Ansel', wrote on 30 January 2012:

I shall be contacting Silvy Peeters and Anna B Gilmore from the Department of Health in Bath University by whatever means at the earliest opportunity and giving them a piece of my mind. How dare they! - adding the authors' work contact details and a photo of Professor Gilmore.[7]

Others searched for more personal details online and published these at the forum, as the screen grab below illustrates.[11]

Snus user abusive comments in response to University of Bath article on illegal snus sales, accessed 7/3/2012


Phone Calls and Emails

On the same day as their contact details were posted on the forum, the authors started receiving emails and phone calls from disgruntled snus user(s). All calls were made from the same mobile phone number, and included personal attacks on the authors' nationality and physical appearance, and went as far as suggesting physical violence against one of the authors.[12]

FOI Requests

Also on 30 January 2012, the University of Bath received a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asking who funded the research on the placing of orders for snus from various EU member states, despite this information being clearly stated in the paper.

Preceding this was a message[13] posted on the snuson.com forum by member Ansel saying “Someone must have funded them to buy all this snus". Part of the University of Bath's response to the FOI applicant was subsequently posted on the forum on 2 February 2012, including contact details of affiliate members of the tobacco control community, who also subsequently received calls and emails. A further two FOI requests were submitted by the same individual in relation to the snus paper, and another three in relation to another project managed by the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group.

Facebook: Tobacco Marketing Uncovered UK

The project that received subsequent FOI requests was a Facebook site set up by the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group, on behalf of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, to monitor tobacco marketing tactics across the UK. On 14 February 2012, members of the snus forum discovered the Facebook site, [14] and subsequently organised a campaign to have Facebook shut down the page.

Snus forum member inciting others to report the Tobacco Marketing Uncovered UK Facebook page as abusive, accessed 7/3/2012


Furthermore, an organised attempt was planned to spam the Facebook page with pro-snus and pro-tobacco messages.

Snus forum member inciting others to spam the Tobacco Marketing Uncovered UK Facebook page with pro-snus and pro-tobacco messages, accessed 7/3/2012


Conclusion

The University of Bath case shows that the online threats, coupled with Freedom of Information requests, were part of a coordinated effort to intimidate academics involved in tobacco control. There was a clear link between the online abuse and threatening phone calls by disgruntled bloggers on the one hand, and the FOI requests on the other.

Relevant TobaccoTactics Resources

  • The page about snus blogger Tim Haigh has more detail on his links with the snus industry and its EU lobbyists in Brussels.

Notes

  1. Peeters, Gilmore, How online sales and promotion of snus in the European Union contravenes current legislation, Tobacco Control, available online since 21 January 2012
  2. University of Bath, Smokeless tobacco sold illegally online, researchers find, Press release, 24 January 2012, accessed April 2012
  3. Tobaksfakta, 80 webbsajter säljer svenskt snus till EU, 22 January 2012, accessed April 2012
  4. Email from Patrik Hildingsson to Silvy Peeters, Mon, 23 Jan 2012 16:21
  5. Screenshots of the links - made at the time of research in mid-2011, in the archives of the authors, Silvy Peeters, University of Bath
  6. See domain registration for GeneralSnus, accessed April 2012
  7. 7.0 7.1 No More EU snus sale again Message posted by Snusify on 30/01/2012 12.47PM on www.snuson.com, accessed 3/2/2012
  8. Three months after the Tobacco Control article on the illegal sale was published, the Northerner suppliers still have snus on offer in their online shops - also for people living in Europe. New test purchases are needed to find out whether online purchases can be completed, and if the goods would indeed be delivered.
  9. See for instance: Catch Collection Mellow på Youtube, Mynewsdesk online, accessed 7/3/2012
  10. Tim Haigh, Snusify Visits Swedish Match-The Highlights, 29 May 2011, accessed April 2012
  11. No More EU snus sale again Messages posted by Fazer and Ansel on 30/01/2012 03.56 and 03.59PM on www.snuson.com, accessed 3/2/2012
  12. University of Bath Tobacco Control Research Group. Phonecalls and email received on 30 and 31 January 2012
  13. Someone must have funded them to buy all this snus, Message posted by Ansel at 30/01/2012 5.22PM on www.snuson.com, accessed 3/2/2012
  14. Just thought I should leave this here, Message posted by Pris at 14/2/2012 4:42AM on www.snuson.com, accessed on 14/02/2012