LOS ANGELES - After years of decline, the rate of smokeless tobacco use among young people in the U.S. has leveled off, new research shows.
In 2011, 5.2 percent of middle school and high school students reported using snuff, chewing tobacco or dipping tobacco at least once in the 30 days before they were interviewed for the National Youth Tobacco Survey, which is conducted by the Centers for Disease Patrol and Prevention. That's essentially the same as the 5.3 percent of young people who were considered smokeless-tobacco users in 2000.
The products are continuing to fall out of favor for the youngest kids in the survey, with use falling by an average of 4.6 percent per year among 9- to 11-year-olds. In addition, smokeless tobacco use among kids between the ages of 12 and 14 fell by an average of 3.4 percent per year.
But tobacco companies gained a little ground among 15- to 17-year-olds, with use rising nearly 1 percent per year on average. Among high school students, the trends were the same regardless of race, ethnicity or gender.
There were no changes in smokeless tobacco use for students age 18 or older.
The findings appeared in Wednesday's edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The researchers, from the Center for Global Tobacco Control at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, along with one colleague from the University of Pretoria in South Africa, speculated that new products like "moist snuff" helped the tobacco industry hold on to smokeless-tobacco customers. In addition, companies are not prohibited from using flavored products or free samples to entice potential customers, they noted.
Lower taxes on smokeless tobacco products relative to cigarettes may have played a role as well, the researchers added.
Many states have begun to restrict online and mail-order sales of smokeless tobacco, and authorities have stepped up enforcement of age verification rules in places where smokeless tobacco products are sold.