An anti-smoking group is calling for tax cuts on a type of Swedish oral tobacco after a New Zealand review found it carries lower health risks than smoking.

The study by the Christchurch School of Medicine reviews the health effects of snus, a ground-up form of tobacco sold in pouches like tiny teabags. They are put under the lip to deliver nicotine.

Snus is modified to be low in cancer-causing agents found in tobacco.

The study, a review of 18 studies, found it was considerably safer than smoking but still carried greater risks than not using tobacco at all.

Snus has divided the international anti-smoking community. Some see it as a way ahead for quit-smoking schemes, while others fear it will lead to non-smokers becoming addicted to a less-than-healthy product, or smokers switching and staying on it.

The medical school report comes days before Swedish Match, a maker of the product – also called oral snuff, begins selling its nasal snuff at some New Zealand tobacconists.

The nasal version is inhaled and comes in a powdered form.

By law, oral snuff cannot be sold in New Zealand and can be imported only for personal use. Nasal snuff, in contrast, is allowed.

The medical school report, by researcher Marita Broadstock, found snus users had a lower risk than smokers of head, neck and gastro-intestinal cancers.

Snus users also had no higher risk of these cancers than people who did not use tobacco in any form.

Five out of six studies of cardiovascular disease risks – mainly heart disease and stroke – in men found “no significantly increased prevalence” of the diseases for snus users compared with no tobacco use.

However, one study found a moderately-increased risk of death in snus users from cardiovascular disease and from all causes. But, among smokers, all the studies found strong positive links to major cardiovascular events.

In maternity, snus use was linked to low birthweight and premature birth when compared to no tobacco use.

Smokeless New Zealand, a group that encourages smokeless nicotine delivery en-route to a tobacco-free future, cites the new study as support for allowing sales of low-risk Swedish snus and reducing its tax level.

Chairman Dr Murray Laugesen said people who imported snus for personal use reported paying $15 a can once all costs were included.

“It’s more expensive than roll-your-owns. That is ridiculous that we have a tax system that makes dangerous smoking tobacco cheaper than smokeless snuff.”

But the Ministry of Health, which commissioned the Christchurch study, remains cautious on snus, hoping new nicotine products will help to more rapidly reduce New Zealand’s rate of smoking, still stuck above 20 per cent for adults.

Chief public health adviser Dr Ashley Bloomfield said more research on snus was needed and pointed to Auckland University’s trials of tobacco-free nicotine products: a nasal spray, oral pouch and lozenge.

“Ideally, if we could move to a situation where we had fast-acting oral or other new products that were non-tobacco that may well provide a more promising way forward.”

But permission had also been granted for a Wellington researcher to import oral snus for research, for which Health Research Council funding has been sought, on the acceptability of the product to New Zealanders.