Smokeless tobacco on the rise at Ridgewood High School

Smokeless tobacco use is on the rise – according to national statistics, but also according to anecdotes from Ridgewood High School (RHS) Principal Jack Lorenz.

At a presentation Tuesday night given by a prevention specialist with The Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources, a program of Children’s Aid and Family Services, a handful of Ridgewood parents listened and learned about the dangers of smokeless tobacco and why it is growing in use, especially among youth.

Jamie England, the specialist with the Hackensack-based Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources, said that 1,200 people die every day from smoking-related deaths, “and the companies need to replace them. There’s no point in marketing to people over age 25, since the chances of them beginning to smoke that late are much less – so they can start by marketing chew tobacco to kids as young as 12.”

At RHS, Lorenz said he was aware of an increase in smokeless tobacco usage, particularly in the past eight months.

“We’re finding disgusting things in washrooms,” Lorenz said. “This year was probably the worst. … It’s of great concern to me.”

Smokeless tobacco comes in many forms, including looseleaf, “plug” tobacco – such as a new Camel brand called Snus – and snuff, England said. Many are made with harmful chemicals such as cadmium, lead, formaldehyde, arsenic and cyanide, as well as fiberglass and sand, which cut the gum so the tobacco can directly enter the bloodstream.

England provided theories about why so many harmful chemicals are put into tobacco: to improve flavor, to help it stick together, and, in the case of cigarettes, to increase burning productivity – but stressed that there was “no definitive answer.”

Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that New Jersey’s rates of chewing tobacco were 6.9 percent in 2002, 5.5 percent in 2007, and 9 percent in 2009.

While lower than the national averages, the overall trend is toward an increase in usage, England said. In particular, the increase is notable in young men ages 12 to 21.

The trend can partly be accounted for by increased tightening of restrictions on smoking in public places, as well as a more aggressive marketing strategy which appeals to youth, she suggested. For example, chewing tobaccos are often mild or flavored with cherry or mint, and sometimes placed at eye level in convenience stores to “normalize” their presence.

There is also a perception in films or advertising that chewing tobacco is popular with athletes, especially in sports like baseball, NASCAR racing, and football.

“They use positive imagery in advertising … like, ‘This is my hero, so it’s OK he does this,'” she said.

England emphasized that, contrary to tobacco companies’ allusion that smokeless tobacco is less dangerous than smoking, it can cause different kinds of cancer: not only mouth and gum cancer, but, due to the ingestion of the chemically-tainted saliva, also gastric and esophageal cancers and damage to the liver, pancreas and kidneys.

“It’s smokeless, not harmless,” she said.

The presentation was sponsored by a grant obtained by the Ridgewood Municipal Alliance Committee, chaired by Sheila Brogan, who is also a trustee at the Board of Education.

Brogan said the committee might follow up later this year by encouraging high school administrators to address students more directly about the trend, through health classes and sports coaches. Brogan and Lorenz also suggested the district may look into participating in the “Great American Spit Out” in February.


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