Some tobacco researchers have argued that the European Union should remove its ban on a form of low-nitrosamine smokeless tobacco referred to as Swedish 'snus'. This argument has developed in to an international debate over the use of smokeless tobacco as a measure of harm reduction for smokers. Leading authorities in the USA have firmly stated that there is no safe tobacco - a message which does not allow for any discussion of comparative tobacco risks. This commentary is intended to review the origin of the controversy over Swedish 'snus', to examine briefly the meta-analysis on cancer risks by Peter Lee and Jan Hamling (published in July in BMC Medicine) and to discuss the anticipated direction of the debate on tobacco-harm reduction in the USA. We anticipate that much of the debate will shift from the discussion of epidemiologic data to the discussion of the marketing, health communication and economics of smokeless tobacco. While the Food and Drug Administration's newly approved authority over tobacco will undoubtedly affect the smokeless products, it may not be the sole determinant of harm reduction's fate in the USA. See associated research article by Lee and Hamling: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/7/36.