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Sales of smokeless tobacco products jump in state, report says

Increased use among high school students draws officials' concerns. The tobacco industry spent $444 million nationwide in 2010 promoting the items, the report says.

December 13, 2012|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • In addition to smokeless tobacco products, young people are using hookahs, which place users at risk of cancer and heart disease. Above, a man enjoys smoking from a hookah in Long Beach in 2007.
In addition to smokeless tobacco products, young people are using hookahs,… (Los Angeles Times )

Sales of chewing tobacco and other such smokeless products rose sharply in California over the last decade, and officials are especially concerned about the increase in use among youths, state public health officials said Thursday.

Smokeless tobacco use among high school students grew to 3.9% of students in 2010, up from 3.1% in 2004. Nearly $211 million in non-cigarette tobacco and nicotine products were sold in California in 2011, up from $77 million in 2001, according to a report released Thursday by the state Department of Public Health.

The main types of smokeless tobacco seen in California are snuff and chewing tobacco, which have similar health risks to cigarettes. But there was also an increase in sales of snus, small packets of tobacco that are placed under the lip. Other dissolvable products like orbs and strips are becoming more popular in other states, and officials predict they will soon come here.

There is less research on the health risks of the newer smokeless tobacco products, officials said. There are also fewer restrictions on their advertising and marketing.

"Some of these products are really flying under the radar," said Colleen Stevens, branch chief of the tobacco control program for the Department of Public Health. Stevens said they are so discreet and small that they can even be used in classrooms. The orbs look like Tic Tacs, and the strips are similar in appearance to dissolvable breath mint strips.

The tobacco industry has invested heavily in advertising smokeless tobacco, with companies spending $444 million nationwide in 2010 promoting and advertising the products, according to the report. The products are widely available, and among tobacco retail outlets, those selling snus in California have jumped to nearly 40% in 2011 from less than 1% in 2008.

In addition, young people are increasingly using hookahs, which place users at risk of cancer and heart disease. They are also smoking cigarillos, which can be bought for less than 70 cents apiece, according to the report.

Illegal sales of tobacco to minors also saw an increase over the last year, though there has been an overall downward trend since the mid-1990s. Places like doughnut shops, delis and discount stores, which may not be fully aware of the laws and penalties, had the highest share of illegal sales, the report said.

"Kids are smart," Stevens said. "All it takes is one place that is selling tobacco and it goes through the grapevine and kids know where that store is."

Altogether, there are roughly 36,700 licensed tobacco retail stores in California, or one for every 254 youths. State Public Health Director Ron Chapman said he planned to closely monitor illegal sales and to use new federal funding to expand enforcement.

California has the second-lowest rate of smoking in the U.S., behind Utah. But roughly 3.6 million people in the state still smoke. The highest rates are among those ages 18 to 24, though they have dropped to 14.6% in 2011 from 22.4% in 2001. Public health officials said they are actively targeting that population because in California, 96% of smokers start by age 26.

The state's adult smoking rates also decreased, to 12% in 2011 from 16.4% in 2001. Among adults, communities in poorer neighborhoods and those with more convenience stores have higher rates of smoking. African Americans had higher rates of smoking than other populations, and state officials said they planned to convene a task force to see what more could be done to reduce tobacco use among the community.

Despite the gains in California and nationwide, smoking is still considered the leading cause of preventable death and disease. More than 34,000 people die from tobacco-related disease each year in the state. And Californians are expected to spend $6.5 billion this year — or $400 per taxpayer — on tobacco-related healthcare costs.

"These costs are completely unnecessary and preventable if California was tobacco free," Chapman said.

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