The Finnish Defence Forces are beefing up their campaign to bring down the use of nicotine products among conscripts, according to a study conducted with lung health organisation Filha over 2014-16.
Smoking was discouraged among conscripts and staff during that period. In early 2019 a new campaign, Irti nuuskasta or "Lose the snus", kicked off in two brigades; the programme is meant to extend to the rest of Finland's barracks in 2020.
The survey interviewed nearly 5,000 conscripts and shows that young people in Finland – civilians and conscripts alike – are using snus, a form of powdered smokeless tobacco, more commonly than before, even while the popularity of smoking cigarettes is falling.
The Defence Forces figures show that more than 30 percent of conscripts consume snus, some of them using the nicotine pouches daily. The number of users tends to climb during military service.
Occupational safety director Pasi Huomo from the Karelia Brigade at Vekaranjärvi said that snus is very common in the barracks, and that cultural phenomena are part of the lives of military trainees and personnel, as well.
"I believe our situation is exactly the same as elsewhere in society, that snus is clearly becoming more common," Huomo said.
The anti-nicotine campaign affects new conscripts and staff alike.
"The most important questions concern nicotine addiction and coping in work and service. We support our staff by helping them pay for replacement products, and our conscripts through information."
Soldiers downplay dangers of snus
Snus users are statistically less likely to want to quit their habit, in the military as well. Users also consider snus to be healthier than smoking.
The head doctor at the Defence Forces General Headquarters, Maria Danielsson, debunked this myth.
"When a smoker takes a hit, he or she gets a brief dose of nicotine. But snus sachets may be kept between the gums for hours on end," she said.
No precise research data yet exists on how much snus is usually consumed at a time, but more information is forthcoming. Danielsson said that frequent users are exposed to nicotine for long periods of time.
"More than six hours a day on average," said Danielsson, who is heading a research paper of her own on the subject.
Snus is illegal to sell in Finland (and all other EU countries besides Sweden) but legal to import up to one kilo at a time for personal use. It contains about 2,500 different chemicals, including more than 20 carcinogenic substances. All of these, as well as the nicotine, are absorbed into the user's bloodstream for the full amount of time the sachet is in their mouth.
Abstinence teaching should be prefaced with education on how to fight nicotine addiction, Danielsson said.
"It's an issue of the maintaining and improving the readiness of fighters in the Defence Forces, which also carries significance for public health," she said.
Danielsson added that a nicotine-free life begins with education well before the army.
"It is worrying that snus users seem to think the product is quite harmless," she said.
Cigarettes are still slightly more common, with one in four conscripts being habitual smokers. The number of smoking outposts in the Karelia Brigade grounds fell from 20 to five, meaning one outpost per 400 conscripts.
"To each his own"
Huomo said that the Defence Forces wants to tackle nicotine addiction effectively, but realistically.
"Conscripts are adults who are allowed to make their own decisions," Huomo said.
Many conscripts who use snus now started the habit years before, as early as elementary school. Huomo said that schools should do more to address the dangers of nicotine reliance.
One way to curb smoking and snusing in the Defence Forces is for the sergeants, captains, majors and other staff to lead by example, said the Karelia Brigade's chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Juhana Skyttä.
"Team coaches, teachers and other youth workers in society [also have a responsibility]," he said.
The Conscript Committee is also dedicated to providing conscripts with activities and education opportunities – such as security guard training, hunting license courses and sporting events – to help the young men and women kick their habit.
The Defence Forces campaign has reportedly hit home with some. Danielsson said that a number of conscripts have approached health professionals in the Brigade on their own to express their desire to quit. Cutting down is also part of the process of sending conscripts home after service is over.