While watching my favorite American League Baseball team on TV last night I was surprised to see the pitcher chewing tobacco. It appeared to be quite a mouthful. Yes, spitting is probably as old as baseball, but for some reason I thought most of the players had switched to gum or sun flower seeds.

A few days before the pitching episode I was at my local small town market. The man in front of me was buying 4 boxes of Copenhagen. Once he made his purchase he handed over 2 of the boxes to a young man who appeared to be about 16 or 17 and said “you owe me son.” They both laughed and walked out of the store.  

It made me cringe to see a really unhealthy habit being passed down from one generation to the next.

It seems that smokeless tobacco is still popular and a new study shows that most young people in the U.S. who use smokeless tobacco also continue to smoke cigarettes.  They’re not actually replacing one habit with another; they’re doubling up.

"These findings are troubling, but not surprising, as tobacco companies spend huge sums to market smokeless tobacco in ways that entice kids to start and encourage dual use of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco," Vince Willmore, vice president of communications at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, told Reuters Health in an email.

"From 1998 to 2011, total marketing expenditures for smokeless tobacco increased by 210 percent - from $145.5 million to $451.7 million a year, according to the Federal Trade Commission," he added.

Another type of smokeless tobacco making the rounds is the Swedish-style “Snus” packet. They started showing up in the states around 2006. The packets are reportedly less harmful than conventional chewing tobacco because they contain fewer nitrosamines, and have been promoted as safer alternatives. They haven’t exactly caught on a lot, but they are gaining a little every year in popularity. Public health experts are concerned that these types of products get kids hooked on nicotine and can lead to switching to traditional smokeless tobacco and / or cigarettes.

To better understand the prevalence of smokeless tobacco use among young people, Dr. Gregory Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and his colleagues looked at data from the 2011 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which included nearly 19,000 sixth- to 12th-graders from across the country.

Overall, the researchers found, 5.6 percent of young people reported using any type of smokeless tobacco. Five percent used chewing tobacco, snuff or dip, just under two percent used Snus and 0.3 percent used dissolvable products.

Among young people who were current smokeless tobacco users, about 72 percent reported smoking cigarettes too, while almost 81 percent of young people who used only Snus or dissolving packets were also smoking cigarettes.

Unfortunately, only about 40 percent of the kids said they were contemplating quitting tobacco products according to findings published in the journal Pediatrics.

"We found higher current use than we expected. It's just not experimentation, it looks like it's taken hold among adolescents," Connolly told Reuters Health.

"The most distressing finding was that this is not resulting in children or in young adolescents switching from smoking to these new products that may or may not be safer when used alone. They're using both in very high numbers."

Advertisers are looking for new customers as more and more older Americans are quitting the smoking and chewing habit.  Amazing how 20 or 30 years of smoking will get your attention when you can’t get through a day without coughing and wheezing. And for those who have spent a lifetime chewing, the appearance of stained lips, gum disease and rotting teeth make the idea of putting away the smokeless tobacco a real possibility.

Pre-teens, teenagers and young adults don’t think about those things. They pretty much live in the moment and when they watch their sports heroes, family members and peers lighting up or chewing tobacco they think about the long-term consequences even less. The tobacco industry knows this and they know that their future depends on recruiting a new group of people, preferably young ones, to carry on the tradition of rebelling by sneaking a cigarette or a wad of tobacco between the cheek and gums.

The good news is that teens are actually smoking less these days than in the past. It may be because the cost of tobacco products is now sky high or maybe they just don’t like the smell and taste. It’s a step in the right direction and one that needs to be encouraged.

I hope the baseball pitcher and the man buying chewing tobacco for his son stop and think about the strong influence they have over the young kids who look up to them.

Source: Anne Harding,  http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/08/us-smokeless-tobacco-idUSBRE97715A20130808