The use of smokeless tobacco in Jackson County has steadily risen in recent years among teens and adults — and now, officials fear the introduction earlier this year of new, candy-flavored "dissolvable tobacco" lozenges will make matters worse.
Called Orbs, the pellets, which look and taste like breath mints, contain as much nicotine as a cigarette and could cause cancer of the mouth and throat, said Jane Stevenson, tobacco program coordinator for the county.
Among eighth-grade males in Jackson County, use of smokeless tobacco jumped from 2 percent in 2001 to 7 percent in 2006, reported Stevenson. Among 11th-grade males, it rose from 10 percent in 2001 to 16 percent in 2006. Among adults here, 3 percent use smokeless tobacco. These figures are 1 to 4 percent higher than the state rates.
"The increase of smokeless tobacco use here among teens is significant and alarming — and dissolvable tobacco is just as addictive as smoking," said Stevenson. "They are packaged to look hip and trendy and they carry the Camel logo. Usually, people are very loyal to their tobacco brand."
The introduction of dissolvable tobacco pellets is in response to new laws prohibiting smoking in bars, restaurants and the workplace, said Mike Welch, owner of Puff's Magazine & Fine Tobacco, an Ashland smoke shop.
The target market for dissolvable pellets, Welch added, is people who buy low-end generic cigarettes. His store won't be selling them, he said, because too many of his customers are concerned about throat cancer.
Talent police in May warned parents about the product after finding several Talent Middle School children with them. Like cigarettes, dissolvable tobacco can be sold only to people 18 and older — but the kids got it from an older sibling, to whom it came as a free promo with cigarettes, said Talent Police Chief Mike Moran.
"You may not get the lung damage and you hear justifications about it, that adults don't have to go stand outside to smoke," Moran said, "but I think it's a bad product, insidious, with high concentrations of nicotine, designed to look like candy — and it's something no person under 18 should have any use for."
Food 4 Less in Medford reported the product is not very popular and that people who buy them — just under $5 for 18 pellets — usually are taking advantage of coupons from magazines or other Camel products.
Dissolvable tobacco can raise blood pressure and pulse and cause heartburn, digestive problems and bad breath, Stevenson said.
Within two years, side effects can include white precancerous spots, called leukoplakia, in the mouth, tooth-staining and decay, and gum-recessing and disease.
Long-term impacts, she said, can be cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus or stomach, heart disease, stroke and tooth loss.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reports that smokeless tobacco contains 28 carcinogens. About 3 percent of Americans use smokeless tobacco, with use highest among males, American Indians and blue-collar workers. More than a $250 million is spent annually promoting it, the CDC reports.
Stevenson said the lozenges present a new concern because, being smokeless and spit-free, they can be used in classrooms without being readily detected.
Some smokers consider them less harmful than cigarettes and are using them to kick smoking, she said, but "they are just as addictive."
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., wrote an amendment to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act requiring the newly created Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee to study the health effects of dissolvable tobacco candy products and report its findings to the Food and Drug Administration.
"In response to a drop in the number of cigarette smokers and new laws limiting smoking in public, Big Tobacco has resorted to outrageous tactics to hook a new generation of our children on tobacco," Merkley said in a news release.
"The tobacco companies are trying to portray new dissolvable tobacco products as harmless, but the truth is that smokeless tobacco is not safe tobacco. Tobacco candy causes cancer and kills," he said.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said, "They are likely to appeal to children because they are flavored and packaged like candy, are easy to conceal even in a classroom, and carry the Camel brand that is already so popular with underage smokers."
R.J. Reynolds, which makes Camels, is due to come out with dissolvable tobacco strips and toothpick-like sticks, according to industry Web sites.
"This is the future," Stevenson said. "We're going to see more and more of this product for people addicted to nicotine — and gram for gram, nicotine is more addictive than any substance."
Stevenson added that with the shifting of tobacco regulation to the FDA, "they'll have to let us know what's in them."