Smokeless tobacco use rising among teens

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Health experts on Wednesday raised concern about the growing use of smokeless tobacco by teenagers, and suggested its use by Major League Baseball players is influencing young people to take up the cancer-causing habit.

San Francisco starting pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) puts some chewing tobacco in his mouth during the 11th inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates in their MLB National League game in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, July 17, 2009. REUTERS/David DeNoma

The use of smokeless tobacco, chewing tobacco and snuff, by teens has risen in recent years, reversing a trend toward declining use of all tobacco products by teens, Terry Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a U.S. congressional panel. He said data to be released in the next few months will show an increase mainly among white and Hispanic young males.

“Across the nation ... we are seeing an uptick,” Pechacek told the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce health subcommittee. “This uptick has been going on for several years now.”

Health experts say smokeless tobacco can cause cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus and pancreas. Pechacek said the CDC is concerned that high school students perceive smokeless tobacco to be safer than cigarettes.

Former baseball player and sportscaster Joe Garagiola, a one-time user of chewing tobacco, said the league should ban the use of smokeless tobacco by players.

“Like many other players I thought being a Major League player meant you had to chew,” Garagiola told the panel. He said he quit when his daughter asked him if he was going to die from it.

“Get together guys, ban tobacco and anyone who uses it is penalized. Get it out of our game,” he said.

All tobacco products have been banned from the minor leagues since 1993. But extending the ban to the majors has to be done as part of a collective bargaining agreement with the players union, Robert Manfred, executive vice president for labor relations and human resource for Major League Baseball, told the committee.

David Prouty, the chief labor counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the union opposes a ban.

“We believe baseball players should not be prohibited from using substances that are perfectly legal and available to the general public,” he told the panel.

Prouty promised to discuss the issue with players to see if they would agree to include a ban in the next contract talks.

Gregory Connolly, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said research shows that about one-third of Major League players and one-quarter of minor league players report using chewing tobacco and moist snuff.

“The use of smokeless tobacco by players has a powerful role model effect on youth particularly among young males in sport, some of whom ironically remain addicted in future careers as professional athletes,” Connolly said.

He said teens often extol the virtues of smokeless tobacco on baseball social networking sites such as Facebook.

Reporting by Donna Smith; Editing by Xavier Briand