Smokeless tobacco sales up sharply in California, officials warn
Sales of chewing tobacco and 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 for users as cigarettes. But there is also an increase in sales of snus, small packets of tobacco. 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 even can 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 of 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 places selling snus in California have jumped from less than 1% in 2008 to nearly 40% in 2011.
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 still smoke. The highest rates are among ages 18 to 24, though they have dropped from 22.4% in 2001 to 14.6% in 2011. Public health officials said they are actively targeting that population because in California, 96% of smokers start by age 26.
Adult smoking rates also decreased from 16.4% in 2001 to 12% in 2011. 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 both 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 expenditures.
“These costs are completely unnecessary and preventable if California was tobacco free,” Chapman said.
-- Anna Gorman
Photo: Sales of smokeless tobacco are up in California. Ariva, a dissolvable tobacco, is shown above. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times