BIG-LEAGUE BASEBALL’S season has begun with a rule change for players, who will no longer spit, squirt and dribble tobacco juice as they conduct televised interviews, sign autographs or appear at team-sponsored events. It’s a half measure, at best: During games, players can still use chewing tobacco and dip to their heart’s content. But given that major leaguers are role models for children, and that smokeless tobacco is a serious health risk, it’s a move in the right direction.
As cigarette smoking has declined, at least in the United States, tobacco companies have responded by pushing other tobacco products, including the smokeless variety. The industry’s advertising targets young people, and it works: A survey in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 15 percent of high school boys were using smokeless tobacco, a 36 percent increase over six years.
Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco contains nicotine, which makes it addictive. While it may not be quite as lethal as cigarettes, it does raise the risk of cancer, heart disease and gum disease, among other ailments. According to the Mayo Clinic, “You can call chewing tobacco by whatever name you want — smokeless tobacco, spit tobacco, chew, snuff, pinch or dip — but don’t call it harmless.”
That message has started to catch on, though it’s no match for the hundreds of millions of dollars that tobacco companies have poured into marketing their smokeless products. One key test is in Maryland, where lawmakers are considering a bill that would raise levies on various tobacco products — including smokeless ones, cigarillos, small cigars and the like — so they are on par with the $2-a-pack level at which cigarettes are taxed.
That would represent a sharp jump; non-cigarette tobacco products are currently taxed at 15 percent of their wholesale price in Maryland, as compared to 66 percent for cigarettes. But it would have a quick public-health payoff: Advocates estimate that the tax increase would cut consumption of these products by 18 percent and reduce the number of teenagers using them by about a third. As an added benefit, the higher levy would raise almost $30 million for the state.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has pushed for increasing the wholesale tax on all non-cigarette tobacco products to 70 percent across-the-board. Unsurprisingly, there’s been push back from tobacco companies, which have clout in Annapolis. They’ve been particularly effective in the state Senate, whose legislation would include only a nominal increase in the tax on smokeless tobacco — one that would do nothing to dissuade youngsters from acquiring the habit.
Maryland lawmakers have seen the light when it comes to cigarettes, on which they imposed one of the country’s stiffest tax rates a few years ago. Now it’s time for them to look at the health risks of other tobacco products, and get with the governor’s program.