While the main focus of World No Tobacco Day this week was on getting people to quit smoking, new SA research indicates that a large percentage of children are using equally addictive smokeless tobacco products, like snuff and chewing tobacco.
The research, headed by the SA Medical Research Council’s Dr Priscilla Reddy, used data from the Youth Risk Behaviour Survey conducted in 2008, which surveyed more than 10 000 pupils nationwide.
Participants were asked a range of questions on their behaviours and the data on smokeless tobacco and cigarette smoking analysed for her research.
It found that 12.4 percent of the young respondents, from grades 8 to 11, had used a smokeless tobacco product in the month preceding the survey.
And because many of the users of smokeless tobacco also smoked cigarettes, the researchers suggested there could be “staggering implications for nicotine dependence and future disease outcomes”.
Reddy said 12.4 percent constituted a “huge proportion” of children, and that their use of smokeless tobacco products was “something to be concerned about”.
The products were addictive because they contained nicotine and children could easily use them in secret.
In addition, because smokeless tobacco products were cheaper than cigarettes, young people had easier access to them, she said.
The data also showed that use was higher in the lower grades, which Reddy said could suggest some youngsters could be “transitioning” from smokeless tobacco to cigarettes.
Smokeless tobacco was more commonly used among boys (13.6 percent) than girls (10.7 percent). Use among African (12.8 percent) and coloured (11.7 percent) pupils was also high.
The research found that smokeless tobacco use was higher among youths who smoked cigarettes, with 21.3 percent of these children having used snuff or chewing tobacco in the month before the survey, and among youth who had started smoking before age 10.
The use of snuff and chewing tobacco was also strongly linked to lower socio-economic environments, and the researchers found that youths who received more than R60 pocket money a month were less likely to use these products than those who received less than R20 pocket money monthly.
Debate has also raged over whether smokeless tobacco could be substituted for cigarettes in what is termed “harm reduction”, as the products contribute less to lung disease than do cigarettes.
British American Tobacco, for example, claims on its website that a smokeless product called “snus”, used commonly in Sweden, “is acknowledged by independent health experts to be at least 90 percent less harmful than smoking cigarettes”.
However, the SA Cancer Association says “tobacco is by far the most important risk factor for oral cancer”, while the World Health Organisation says chewing tobacco and using snuff raises the risk of oral cancer by 80 percent.