Cigarette smoking among Florida's middle and high school students has been falling since 1998. That's the good news.
But another troubling trend has emerged: The use of smokeless tobacco — chewing tobacco and snuff — among high school students is up, both in Florida and nationally.
Now public health officials are asking Major League Baseball to ban smokeless tobacco in its most visible venues: the dugouts and baseball fields where players, coaches and staffers can be seen during nationally televised games chewing, spitting or sporting a wad of tobacco between cheek and gum. Commissioner Bud Selig endorsed the idea last week, but a ban is subject to negotiation with the players union.
"Whether they want to be or not, baseball players are a role model. They are seen," said Deb Shaffer, program manager for Tobacco Prevention and Control at the Pinellas County Health Department. "The ban asks them not to use (smokeless tobacco) in view of children. We're fighting the perception that baseball and tobacco go together."
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According to the latest Florida Youth Tobacco Survey, use of smokeless tobacco among public high school students went up more than 39 percent between 2002 and 2010. Nationally, use is up 36 percent since 2003, according to Dan Cronin of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington-based group.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 15 percent of American high school boys are using smokeless tobacco. Many may not know that, like smoking tobacco, snuff and chewing tobacco also cause cancer.
In 2008, 5.6 percent of Hillsborough County public high school students reported using smokeless tobacco at least once in the past 30 days. In 2010, 7 percent were using. While the numbers are lower than the national figure, they include both sexes, and girls generally aren't as fond of the stuff as boys.
In Pinellas County, smokeless tobacco use among high school students went from 4 percent in 2008 to 4.4 percent in 2010. But, in Pinellas middle schools, use jumped from 1.8 percent in 2008 to 3.5 percent in 2010.
"The numbers had been going down steadily for several years. Now they are starting to make an upturn,'' Shaffer said.
"It's a big concern with the older kids because, in that age group, use may lead to more of an addiction."
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Public health experts say some kids pick up the habit from peers or parents. But others, they say, emulate their heroes — particularly baseball players.
It has been estimated that one-third of major league players use smokeless tobacco, though many try to conceal their habit. Rick Vaughn, vice president of communications for the Tampa Bay Rays, said he doesn't know how many of the team's players chew or dip tobacco.
In November the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and 10 major health groups, including the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote to Selig, asking him to propose a ban on smokeless tobacco use in major league ballparks.
Last week, in time for the season's opening day, health department directors in 15 major league cities sent a letter to Selig and the Major League Baseball Players Association calling for a tobacco ban in the majors.
Missing from the list: St. Petersburg.
Cronin said his staff thought the Tampa Bay Rays were based in Tampa and contacted the Hillsborough County Health Department, but got no response.
When a reporter corrected the group's mistake last week, Cronin's office contacted the Pinellas County Health Department. Officials there promptly signed on to the Knock Tobacco Out of the Park campaign.
The Hillsborough County Health Department referred its invitation to the Florida Department of Health Tobacco Prevention Program in Tallahassee, said spokesman Steve Huard.
Last week Selig agreed to bring up the ban in contract negotiations with players. The players association knows the risks of tobacco use and takes them seriously, but a ban "is subject to collective bargaining," said spokesman Greg Bouris.
Major League Baseball already has a ban on smoking cigarettes within view of fans or cameras; all tobacco has been banned in the minor leagues since 1993.
Players and coaches can be seen spitting sunflower seeds and popping bubble gum during games. But there are still those with a bulging cheek or lip, and it gets noticed.
"Curious kids want to know what that is," Shaffer said. "The older they get, the more likely they are to say, 'I'm going to try that.' "
Irene Maher can be reached at email@example.com.