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Footballers lead gilded lives so why the reliance on snus?

Swedish Match production line of portion Snus, a smokeless tobacco product that is placed under the upper lip
Snus is a Swedish tobacco product that is placed under the top lip - AFP/Jonathan Nackstrand

‘The pressures of football and of life are really starting to get to people,” said the West Ham striker Michail Antonio this week, in a discussion on the latest habit of his fellow professional footballers. “That is the reason players do it.”

He was talking about what has become something of an epidemic in Premier League clubs and beyond. Snus, the Swedish smokeless tobacco that is packaged in miniature tea-bag like sachets and placed under the top lip by the gum, is a problem clubs are quietly trying to get to grips with.

It is said to be addictive for most, although it is by no means a banned substance in sport despite the potential long-term health risk. So far clubs have tolerated its usage, although that may well change.

Neil Lennon was seen placing a snus sachet on his gums on the touchline during his time as Celtic manager
Neil Lennon was seen placing a snus sachet on his gums on the touchline during his time as Celtic manager - BBC

It has spread throughout the game, having been brought in by Scandinavian players decades ago. Jamie Vardy often gets the blame having publicly admitted to using snus in 2016, albeit he said he had stopped using it two years later. In fact, it predates him by a long way and was being passed around among some of the England players struggling with boredom and isolation under Fabio Capello at the 2010 World Cup. David James, a member of that squad, has admitted to using it in the 1990s.

Antonio, speaking on his BBC podcast, was illuminating on the subject. For the first time he was asking a different question: why are players doing it? “I wouldn’t say the clubs are against it,” he said. “Clubs really want players to be able to deal with things and stay calm in any way, shape or form.” So far it has been presented as a story of wealthy footballers and their peculiar and naïve habits, but what if it was about something more fundamental?

The use of snus has become so widespread, even reaching into academy sides, that the player’s union, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has commissioned a survey from Loughborough University into the issue. The anecdotal evidence of clubs is of changing-room floors strewn with the small tins in which snus pouches come, and players bringing large supplies for long trips away or tournaments. After the initial nausea it is said to produce a calm, which can be welcome in the relentless cycle of games that is the life of the elite footballer.

Snus is illegal to sell but not illegal to use in Britain, but many players have suppliers and the alternative nicotine pouches that do not have tobacco are widely available to buy. In Sweden, it is estimated that around 20 per cent of the male population uses snus. In Norway, that figure rises to 29 per cent for men aged 16 to 24 and 12 per cent for women. Victor Lindelof, the Sweden international at Manchester United, has posted pictures of his favourite brand on social media.

In those parts of Scandinavia, where snus is a cultural norm, there is derision at what is regarded as a British media hysteria about the habit. Although that is not a view shared throughout the region. In July the most comprehensive study yet into the risks of snus was published in the International Journal of Cancer, written by a group of public health and cancer specialists in Oslo.

Snus cans seen on shelves at a Swedish Match store in Stockholm
Snus cans seen on shelves at a Swedish Match store in Stockholm - Anna Ringstrom/Reuters
Players are in the habit of bringing large supplies for long trips away or tournaments
Players are in the habit of bringing large supplies for long trips away or tournaments - Olivier Morin/AFP

In a comparison of cancer risk in snus users and non-users the findings were clear. There was moderate evidence that snus use led to a greater risk of esophageal and pancreatic cancer, and also weaker evidence that it also caused a greater prevalence of stomach and rectal cancer.

The Loughborough researchers for the PFA are looking at why it has become so widespread. They have interviewed staff at clubs in the Premier League and Football League to inform their survey questions. The surveys have now been sent to the PFA’s members and the results should be published in the first quarter of next year.

Modern footballers have never been so well-conditioned. There are few players on Premier League contracts who cannot afford private chefs or personal trainers on top of the teams of experts their employers pay to keep them in shape. The club’s sports science departments are sophisticated, and the analysis of the data from training and performance allows medical departments to anticipate injury risk rather than just react.

The old days of Saturday night on the booze, and possibly Sunday too, are gone. The current England captain is so abstemious that when he was asked about alcohol a year ago he seemed to be able to count on one hand the number of drinks he had over the course of 12 months. The same could not be said of many of Harry Kane’s predecessors.

Football is a gilded life indeed, although clearly something is not right or so many would not be using an addictive substance with all the disadvantages that has for elite sport – not least the long-term problems.

The suggestion is that the reality is much as Antonio described it. The rewards of being a professional footballer have never been greater. By the same token, the match schedule has never been more densely populated and the scrutiny has never been fiercer. Everything from the technological advance of television coverage, to media competition for eyeballs and clicks, to the dark infinite galaxy of social media. All of it means that these players are under pressure. Snus is beginning to look like the small act of rebellion that also gives them a sense of well-being amid the storm.

Many of them will know that snus is unlikely to be good for a life spent optimising their physical condition – and yet they do it anyway. “I haven’t seen any club be really against it [snus],” Antonio said. “It’s not illegal, it’s not a banned substance in the game so … as long as the boys are performing on the weekend then, it is what it is.”

What it is, some of those who have developed addictions that require prolific use are yet to find out. That may come long after their playing careers are over. But before then one can only hope that the PFA will get to the heart of why, which may elicit an answer the game finds difficult.

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