How to make Finland smoke-free?

Submitted on Mon, 09/25/2017 - 13:06
David Timberlake/ Photo: Jonne Renvall
“The tobacco industry has close ties with politics. This is why it is very interesting to analyse the Finnish situation,” David Timberlake says. Photo: Jonne Renvall


Finland has the ambitious goal of ending smoking by 2030. To be exact, the aim is that in 2030 at the most five percent of people at working age smoke cigarettes or use other nicotine products.

Reaching the goal will require reinforcing people’s positive attitudes to a smoke-free lifestyle; prevent young people from starting to smoke and strengthening the implementation of the Tobacco Act.

Finland's determination to curb smoking made David Timberlake pay attention. He is Professor of Health Sciences at the University of California in the United States.

“Finland is a very interesting country in this respect. It is one of the four countries in the world to have such an ambitious goal. However, Finland is the first country to take practical measures. On paper, Finland’s approach appears to be effective in reducing smoking rates, but rather conventional. Some researchers have questioned whether conventional approaches will be able to drive smoking rates down to the single digits,” says Timberlake, who is visiting the University of Tampere as a Fulbright professor. Part of Timberlake’s project is to investigate whether policymakers have entertained a more radical approach to ending the scourge of cigarette smoking and other tobacco use.

Timberlake became interested in tobacco policy about a decade ago. At that time, there was much talk about diminishing the damages caused by risky substances. For example, offering clean needles to drug addicts has saved many lives and helped to contain HIV infections. Such benefits were easy to demonstrate.

“How can the same ‘harm reduction’ mode of speaking be used for tobacco products, such as snus or electronic cigarettes?  How can they be marketed as ‘less damaging’ alternatives to traditional cigarettes? Especially when, for example, in the United States the same big tobacco companies manufacture these alternatives as well as traditional cigarettes,” Timberlake asks.

At the same time, the official line in Finland is that ‘less harmful’ is not an option.  Finland wants to get rid of all tobacco products. However, the use of snus is more frequent in Finland than it is in the United States.

“I want to find out whether such a goal can be achieved and what are the measures taken by Finland that help achieve the goal. People elsewhere could learn from the Finnish experience,” he says.

Something has clearly been done right. Timberlake reminds that years ago Finland used to have one of the highest rates of smoking in the world. A change happened in 1976 when the Tobacco Act entered into force.

“In the United States, a similar step in federal legislation was not taken until Obama’s presidency. However, the 2009 Tobacco Control Act in the U.S. leaves tobacco taxation and establishment of smoke-free environments up to the individual states,” Timberlake says.

In his research, Timberlake aims to chart, among other things, the sales volume and routes of snus from Sweden to Finnish consumers. In addition, he will conduct interviews with experts at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the National Institute for Health and Welfare and various NGOs. The aim is to discover what means the Finnish authorities are prepared to use in order to stop smoking.

“For example, in the United States prescription medication for nicotine addiction is heavily marketed, but is used by a minority of smokers who want to quit,” Timberlake points out. “We have nicotine replacement therapies and, in some cases, antidepressants are used. Other means of support include behavioural therapy and quit smoking hotlines, which people can call for counselling. However, these measures can only help to a limit. If we want to decrease smoking to less than 10 percent of the population, I think we will need more radical measures,” he adds.

One huge challenge in the United States is the aggressive lobbying conducted the tobacco industry.

“The tobacco industry has close ties with politics. This is why it is very interesting to analyse the Finnish situation,” Timberlake says.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen