Stubbing out smoking, switching over to snus? Study of perceptions and experiences regarding tobacco products among teenagers aged 13–17

Mikko Piispa

In Finnish: Sammuuko savuke, nouseeko nuuska? Tutkimus yläkouluikäisten tupakkatuotteisiin liittyvistä mielikuvista ja kokemuksista


In this study, interviews were carried out with teenagers aged 13-17 to find out their perceptions, attitudes and experiences regarding tobacco products. The links between the use of tobacco products and social and youth culture were also studied. The interviews were carried out at youth centres in Oulu, Kouvola and Espoo, mainly as group interviews. In total, 33 young people were interviewed. The interviewees included non-smokers and smokers, as well as those who use or have tried other tobacco products.

The young people felt their main reasons for experimenting with tobacco were their group of friends and curiosity. They, including the smokers, also seemed well aware of the health risks. The main reasons for not smoking were that it smells bad and affects sports performance, and the more serious risks to health. Smoking was generally considered to be a pointless, stupid habit. Smokers listed weaker sports performance, bad smell, addiction and effects on appearance as the drawbacks of smoking. They did not agree that non-smokers tend to drop out of groups of friends, even though this might have been a previous concern of theirs.

Some of the interviewees, particularly boys, felt snus (or Swedish snus, a smokeless tobacco product) and e-cigarettes were less harmful than cigarettes. The main reason for this was that the products have less impact on sports performance than cigarettes. However, girls in particular, and also some of the boys, felt that snus was at least as harmful as, and also more “disgusting” than, cigarettes. The young people, especially the non-smokers, seemed to know very little about e-cigarettes. The combined use of tobacco products was common among the users of these products.

The young people did not clearly associate smoking with any group phenomena or youth cultures. However, there was a general perception that young people who are not doing as well as others in other respects are also more likely to smoke. At the same time, smoking was also considered to be associated with the general, possibly also slightly dubious, activity of “hanging out”. Those with a more focused approach to life were also believed to be less likely than others to start smoking. The young people did not think there was anything “cool” about smoking or that it increased people’s popularity, even though “showing off” might be one reason to try smoking.

Snus has a more neutral status than cigarettes: not as “cool”, but not as bad either. Ice hockey players and, to some degree, also other sports players, were considered to be the typical user group of snus. The interview material also highlighted a connection between smoking and a certain culture related to construction workers and those pursuing the vocational studies leading to this profession. In this culture smoking is a habit that is socially inherited from the father.

The study shows that health is important to young people. Even those who used nicotine products often evaluated and considered their habit from the perspective of health. In connection with this, sport and exercise were considered healthy ways of life that do not benefit from smoking. On the other hand, health, exercise and intoxicants are also considered individual choices, or “personal matters”. Also, boys in particular considered snus and e-cigarettes to be less harmful in relation to both health and exercise. Snus also seems readily available to young people.

Tobacco in the form of cigarettes is no longer the source of social capital and status among young people that it once was. On the other hand, it is still possible to pinpoint cultural pockets where smoking has a value that provides status to members of a group. Regional differences may also be significant. The reduction in tobacco use is also likely to be related to the fact that underage people drink less alcohol than they used to.

Keywords: young people, smoking, snus, e-cigarette