High school athletes may be getting the message that cigarettes are bad for their health, but the same can't be said for smokeless tobacco, a new government report shows.
In fact, these young athletes were almost 80 percent more likely to use smokeless tobacco products than non-athletes, researchers from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found.
Among high school athletes, the use of smokeless tobacco such as chew, moist snuff or dip increased from 10 percent in 2001 to more than 11 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, the use of smokeless tobacco remained roughly the same among non-athletes, hovering at 6 percent.
During that same period, the use of cigarettes and cigars dropped significantly among all high school students, from 31.5 percent to 19.5 percent, the report showed.
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"This trend is concerning," said report authour Brian King, deputy director for research translation at the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.
"We know that smokeless tobacco has health harms," he said. "Aside from the fact that it includes nicotine, which is highly addictive and also can harm the developing adolescent brain, smokeless tobacco is linked with a variety of cancers, such as in the mouth, the oesophagus and the pancreas," King said.
It is also associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, he said.
However, King said, kids may think smokeless tobacco is a safe. "They are unaware of the harm associated with nicotine or tobacco," he said. And, kids may see snuff and chewing tobacco as more socially acceptable than smoking, King said.
He added that the use of dip and chew among professional athletes may influence teens because kids may see these athletes as role models.
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"Teens may also think these products will boost their athletic performance," King said.
The latest report used data from the national Youth Risk Behaviour Surveys, which includes high school students throughout the United States. The findings were published online in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The researchers found that the more sports teens played, the more likely they were to use smokeless tobacco. During 2013, 12.5 percent of teens who played three or more sports used smokeless tobacco, compared with 11.5 percent among those who played two sports, 10 percent among those who played one sport and 6 percent among non-athletes, the study said.
In contrast, the use of cigarettes and cigars was 16 percent for students on three or more sports teams, 17 percent for those on two teams, 20 percent for those on one team and 21 percent for non-athletes, the researchers said.
King said that the tobacco industry has marketed smokeless tobacco as an alternative to cigarettes in situations where smoking is prohibited, which might further promote their use among athletes. Although Minor League Baseball prohibits use of smokeless tobacco, Major League Baseball restricts but does not prohibit its use, he noted.
Two cities have banned the use of smokeless tobacco in their sports venues, according to the researchers: San Francisco's ban becomes effective Jan. 1, 2016, and it will prohibit the use of smokeless tobacco and all other tobacco products at all city professional and amateur athletic venues; Boston enacted a similar policy on Sept. 2 that goes into effect April 1, 2016.
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Tobacco-free policies that ban all tobacco use by players, coaches, referees and fans on school campuses and at all public recreational facilities including stadiums, parks and school gymnasiums might help make smokeless tobacco use less socially acceptable and reduce its use among student athletes, King said.
John Schachter, director of state communications at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said, "This study shows why it's so critical that we set the right example for kids, especially for young athletes, by taking chewing tobacco out of baseball once and for all."
It's no accident that smokeless tobacco use has gone up among high school athletes, he said. "It stems directly from the negative example set by major leaguers who use chewing tobacco and by tobacco marketing that tells teen boys they can't be real men unless they chew," Schachter said.
San Francisco and Boston have taken historic action to break the harmful link between tobacco and baseball by prohibiting use of all tobacco at baseball stadiums, he said.
"We urge all of Major League Baseball to follow their lead," Schachter said.
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Image: Chewable tobacco from iStock