VIENTIANE, Laos — There is a tell-tale bulge above Petter Svensson’s upper lip, and when the broad-shouldered Swede speaks, his face tightens to hold it in place.
That pea-sized lump is “snus,” a pinch of moist tobacco better known to Americans as dip. “I always keep it my back pocket,” he explains, producing a plastic container from his jeans. Svensson pops the lid to reveal the contents: a solid cake of fudge-brown tobacco.
That Svensson loves his snus is no surprise. More than one in five Swedes are users. That he processed it himself from tobacco farmed along the Mekong River, however, is a first.
Despite its ubiquity in both Scandinavia and the American south, smokeless tobacco is virtually unknown in Southeast Asia. Customs officers in Bangkok, the Thai-Laos region’s chief entry point, typically regard it as contraband if it’s spotted in travelers’ backpacks. It is often confiscated and tossed.
But in the past year, two different Swedes on both sides of the Thai-Laos border have separately embarked on a curious cottage industry: producing and selling snus in a region where it is virtually unknown.
Neither has delusions of winning over locals, who are typically befuddled when confronted with the Western habit. They’re targeting foreigners, mostly Swedes, who are weary of having their hearts broken in the customs queue.
This market is surprisingly huge: In a given year, nearly 5 percent of the Swedish population comes to Thailand for tourism, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. From all of Scandinavia — Norway, Denmark and Sweden — Thailand takes in more than 620,000 arrivals per year.
“The snusser is very particular,” says Goran Andersson, founder of “Viking Snus,” which cultivates tobacco in Thailand’s central foothills. “If it’s taken from him in the airport, he’s ready to fly home, thousands of miles, to get his snus box.”
In Sweden, snus is so entrenched in popular culture that it nearly derailed the nation’s bid to join the European Union, which banned smokeless tobacco in 1992. (Sweden was given an exception.)
Snus proponents compare it favorably to smoking, citing conclusions by the independent Tobacco Control peer-review journal that snus causes cardiovascular problems and nicotine addiction, but not the level of cancer risk connected to smoking. The American Cancer Society has also acknowledged that snus is more benign than cigarettes.
“I realize there is no snus tradition in this part of the world,” Svensson says. “But I know I can move a ton of it during tourist season.”
Svensson’s “Pioneer Snus” brand currently sells only about 100 cans per month in Laos’ tourism district. His aim is to ratchet up production to 3,000 monthly sales and expand into tourist-rich Thailand. He grinds and dries roughly 50 kilos of Lao tobacco each month with the help of an assistant, Vichit Phongsa, the 58-year-old son of Laotian tobacco farmers.
The end product resembles a chocolate brownie. For the novice snus user, one marble-sized pinch to the gums can produce a nicotine tingle that shoots straight down to the toes.
This habit is described romantically by Andersson, who now sells 1,000 cans per month in Bangkok. Snus, he says, is a sophisticated pleasure in league with wine or cheese.
“It’s living material,” he says. “In production, you have to give it time. You cannot stress or speed up the snus. The snus must rest.”
Like Pioneer Snus, Andersson’s Viking Snus operation was born from fears of running out of snus in Thailand or having his stash tossed by customs agents. A large shipment from Sweden was once confiscated by officials, who instead sent a note explaining he could recover his snus once he proved it was not poisonous.
“I felt like a man fighting a windmill,” he says.
Andersson was legally cleared to sell Viking Snus only after promising to use only Thai tobacco, right down to the seed.
He is convinced the market in Bangkok could explode if he were allowed to advertise his product. But Thai tobacco advertising laws are notoriously strict, forbidding billboards, radio spots and even actors puffing on television. Movie stars’ faces are blurred when a cigarette hits their lips.
Given legal restrictions, and regional oblivion to the product, pressuring locals to take up snus is a battle neither man foresees winning.
Vichit, Svensson’s Laotian snus-making assistant, will not even sample his own creation.
“I’ll smoke cigarettes occasionally,” Vichit says. “But this stuff? Never tried it.”