Macho image of smokeless tobacco lures more teen-agers

The worn circle of the snuff can is showing up on the back pockets of a growing number of adolescent boys across the country. Concerned that an old habit is regaining popularity, health professionals, school officials, and politicians have begun to take action.

Congressional hearings are scheduled to begin in Washington Friday on legislation that would require warning labels on snuff and chewing tobacco similar to those now carried on cigarettes.

Last week Massachusetts became the first state to approve such a requirement. The warning, to appear on all smokeless tobacco sold in the state after Dec. 1, will warn that use of such products can be addictive and be a health hazard.

Schools in Oklahoma and Texas have begun including information on the risks of smokeless tobacco in dental health programs.

Efforts to educate the public about the possible dangers of smokeless tobacco -- either snuff, which is placed between the lower lip and gums, or the less popular chewing tobacco, which is kept in the cheek -- stem from surveys showing increased use among teen-agers, chiefly white males.

``It's evident that children are using [smokeless tobacco], because school personnel are seeing more of these cans in the back pockets,'' says Carlos Lozano, chief of the Texas Bureau of Dental Health. ``And this raises the concern that more of them may be using it on a regular basis.''

A 1984 study in Massachusetts found that 28 percent of high school males had tried snuff during the previous year, while 12 percent said they had used it several times or very often.

A Florida survey of 7th- and 8th-grade males in rural areas of the South found that 59 percent had tried smokeless products.

``One of our primary concerns is the idea many kids seem to have that [smokeless tobacco] is better than smoking,'' says Martha Wood, assistant director of dental health for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. ``We want to make it clear that it is not a safe alternative.''

Dental health experts say smokeless tobacco can lead to gum and mouth disease, although the tobacco industry says this has yet to be scientifically proven.

An Oklahoma survey of 11th-grade students last year showed that half thought smokeless tobacco was less harmful than smoking.

Figures compiled by the United States Department of Health and Human Services show that use of snuff and chewing tobacco nearly died out with the development of commercially manufactured cigarettes following World War I. Current HHS statistics indicate a trend back to smokeless products as a decade-long slide in the number of smokers is being balanced by an annual 11 percent increase in sales of smokeless tobacco.

Such surveys, along with the nationally publicized case of a 19-year-old Oklahoman whose death last year was attributed to his six-year snuff habit, have led Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma to file legislation that would require warnings on smokeless tobacco products and advertisements. Broadcast advertisements would not be prohibited but would be required to carry warnings.

``The use of sports stars in their television ads is one example of how they're aiming for kids,'' says John Hollar, legislative aide to Mr. Synar. Health and school officials say the association of athletes and rugged cowboys with smokeless tobacco reinforces the products' macho image.

``Right now it's considered macho to have that worn ring from the can in your back pocket,'' says Dr. Lozano, the Texas dental health official. This may explain why use among girls is limited.

Representatives of companies marketing smokeless tobacco products say they use sports stars in advertising to reach their target audience -- males 18 years old and up -- not to attract adolescent customers.

``We're not using active athletes,'' says Hugh Foley, corporate affairs manager with US Tobacco in Greenwich, Conn. ``If we were looking for kids, we'd use MTV [rock videos] or afternoon TV.''

The Smokeless Tobacco Council supports state laws prohibiting the sale of snuff or chewing tobacco to anyone under 18. Currently 17 states have no age limit on sales; 33 states have various age limits -- going as low as 13 in Indiana.

``We believe the use of smokeless tobacco should remain the adult custom it has traditionally been,'' says council spokeswoman Gail Balph. At the subcommittee hearing Friday, the council will unveil a public-service announcement that discourages the use of smokeless tobacco by children.

The council favors a federal policy on warning labels, if there must be any, rather than a hodgepodge of state variations. Still, the council says warning labels are premature because ``scientific controversy'' clouds the question of smokeless tobacco's effects.

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