• 7/21/2006
  • Iowa City, IA
  • Angela Meng
  • Iowa City Press Citizen (www.press-citizen.com)

Health experts worry about rise of fruity flavors

Every time a new flavor of smokeless tobacco comes out, Matt Walters, 26, is curious to see what it tastes like.

“People may not like Skoal straight, but now they have apple, cherry and jolly rancher flavors, and they taste a lot better than plain or original tobacco,” the North Liberty resident said. “The tobacco industry is doing a good job of getting people to try chew.”

Although statistics have shown a decrease in smokeless tobacco use, some think an increase is in the near future.

“I think it may well increase now for two reasons: the increasing movement to smoke-free environments and the great interest of the large tobacco companies in smokeless tobacco,” said Christopher Squier, University of Iowa associate dean of the College of Dentistry and a member of the Dows Institute for Dental Research at UI.

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use of chewing tobacco, snuff or dip by middle school and high school students in the United States decreased from 11.4 percent in 1995 to 8 percent in 2005. In Iowa, usage decreased from 12.8 percent in 1997 to 7.9 percent in 2005. However, health experts say the tobacco industry is promoting smokeless tobacco in ways that will soon escalate use.

“The tobacco industry is starting this ‘harm reduction’ theme — which is a great market,” Squier said. “They market smokeless tobacco as an alternative, which just isn’t true.”

Squier said the tobacco industry promotes smokeless tobacco mainly to young, blue-collar men by using hunting and climbing themes that are “very enticing to young males.”

Kelly Richeal, 20, a Hy-Vee employee who regularly sells tobacco products, said more and more people are buying the “fruity flavors instead of the regular kind.”

“If a new flavor comes out, we sell more, and they seem to go faster,” Richeal said. “The younger kids that come in seem to be the ones buying the flavored kinds — it’s like a trend — and the older people just buy the regular kinds.”

Richeal said she thinks more people might purchase the smokeless tobacco because the fruity flavors are more appealing to those who have not chewed before.

“I think people will keep coming in and buying (smokeless tobacco) until they find a flavor that they like,” she said.

However, Deb Schnyder, supervisor of 16 Cigarette Outlet stores in Iowa, including one in Iowa City, said she does not think an increase in usage is in the near future.

“As cigarette prices go up, so do chew prices,” Schnyder said. “Some chew if they can’t smoke, but people won’t quit smoking and go to chew.”

However, Schnyder added, she is noticing more interesting packaging and an increase in the variety of flavors.

“There are more and more flavors. They’re trying to attract the young with these flavors,” she said.

Walters is one of many who began chewing at a young age. He said he first tried smokeless tobacco out of curiosity when he was 18 years old, and it grew on him. He chews about twice a day when there is “ideal time” and nothing else to do. He said smokeless tobacco is a habit one gets addicted to.

“I see a lot of 18-year-old boys getting ID’d when I buy chew,” Walters said. “The majority of people I see seem my age and younger, and the new flavors definitely seem to be attracting more people.”

Matt Schmitt, 32, a North Liberty resident, also began chewing when he was young.

“I started chewing when I was 15,” Schmitt said. “I go through about three cans a week.”

Schmitt said he has tried the flavored smokeless tobacco but prefers the original kind. Schmitt said he thinks younger users are more attracted to the flavored kinds because it tastes better than the original kind — which they are not used to.

“It seems like a lot more people are doing it now than when I was in high school,” Schmitt said. “But it’s really not a cool thing.”

Health experts agree.

Smokeless tobacco can cause changes in the mouth’s lining and erosions in the gums as well as tooth loss. It also can cause lesions in the mouth — a white patch where one puts the chew — called leukoplakia, which has a low risk of leading to cancer, Squier said.

“Generally, males 16 to 28 chew, and they start at a young age and get addicted,” Squier said. “Because of the high level of nicotine, it’s very addictive. Once you start using it frequently, it’s harder to stop than cigarettes.”

According to the CDC Web site, smokeless tobacco contains 28 cancer-causing agents or carcinogens. The two main types of smokeless tobacco in the U.S. are chewing tobacco and snuff. Chewing tobacco comes in the form of loose leaf, plug or twist. Snuff is finely ground tobacco that can be dry, moist or in bag-like pouches.

Chuck Lynch, professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa and a principal investigator and medical director of the State Health Registry of Iowa, said tobacco is the No. 1 modifier for risking cancer. He said it increases oral cancer on the lip, tongue, cheek and roof of the mouth.

Lynch said he also thinks smokeless tobacco use will increase, but health experts might not see an increase in oral cancer for another 20 to 30 years.

“You don’t develop a disease after a single exposure,” Lynch said. “It’s not unusual to develop a disease after a few decades.”

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