Author: Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel
As anti-tobacco advocates celebrate today’s Great American Spit Out — the “chew” equivalent of the Great American Smoke Out — health officials warn that new dissolvable and flavored varieties of smokeless-tobacco products are targeting teens in a mission to get them hooked.
Newly released data from state health researchers show that, while cigarette smoking among Florida youth has reached an all-time low, smokeless tobacco use has been virtually unchanged for the past decade: roughly 5.5 percent among high school students statewide.
And it’s nearly 9 percent in some counties, including Lake.
“The tobacco industry is targeting us,” said Magi Linscott, a Pensacola-area 18-year-old named National Youth Advocate for 2014 by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “They’re trying to get a new generation of addicts.”
Recent product developments include colorfully packaged, kid-friendly flavors of tobacco-infused candy, mints, gum, breath strips and flavored toothpicks — all containing nicotine. Depending on the type, they are designed to be held in the mouth, chewed, or sucked until they dissolve and the juices swallowed.
Along with more traditional chew, snuff and a teabag-like pouch of finely ground tobacco called snus (“snoose”), smokeless products may lure users with a false sense of safety. Shannon Hughes, Tobacco Free Florida bureau chief, said young people — and their parents — may not realize the dangers of the products, which increase the risk of oral cancer by 80 percent.
“Adults think, ‘Well, at least they’re not smoking,'” Hughes said. “Yes, cigarettes do cause more systemic damage to the body. But smokeless tobacco dramatically increases the risk of oral cancer, which is horribly disfiguring, and a horrible way to die. The bottom line is: There’s no safe level of tobacco use.”
The Spit Out — aimed at raising awareness of the problem — is part of a national “Through with Chew Week.” But because no single agency sponsors the campaign, it lacks the name recognition of the Smoke Out, officials admit.
Still, Hughes and others said, the proliferation of smokeless products makes the message especially urgent.
Chew and snuff have long been popular among baseball players and in rural communities, where their use is sometimes a rite of passage. Among local high-school students surveyed last year, only 3.1 percent of those in Orange County said they currently used smokeless tobacco, while the rate was 4.2 in Osceola, 5.3 in Seminole and 8.9 percent in Lake.
Use is vastly more common for males than females and for whites than blacks or Hispanics.
“It’s part of the culture in certain areas,” Hughes said. “And it can be easier to conceal,” especially with the newer forms. It is also cheaper than cigarettes.
But the American Cancer Society warns that because U.S. tobacco sellers are not required to list what’s in their products, it’s hard to know exactly how hazardous the smokeless varieties can be.
The World Health Organization has identified at least 28 carcinogens in smokeless tobacco, and along with the heightened risk of oral cancer, there’s a 60 percent increase in the risk of esophageal and pancreatic cancers compared to non-users. The products also raise the risk of heart disease and fatal strokes and may impact reproductive health, Hughes said.
“And because youth are often most concerned with the immediate impact,” she said, “we point out that smokeless tobacco use can cause tooth decay, permanent discoloration of teeth and gingivitis leading to tooth loss.”
Perhaps most disconcerting is the increased likelihood of stepping up to more lethal forms of tobacco. Researchers found smokeless-tobacco users tend to experiment with smoking and are more likely to become addicted. The younger the user, scientists say, the more sensitivity to nicotine.