WASHINGTON - The United States faces an epidemic of oral cancer in coming decades because more and more young people are addicted to snuff and chewing tobacco, Surgeon General Antonia Novello says.
Novello blamed complacent parents, tobacco-chewing baseball players and the aggressive smokeless-tobacco industry for an eightfold increase over the past 15 years of youths 17 to 19 who chew tobacco or dip snuff.
"The majority of our experts predict an oral cancer epidemic beginning two or three decades from now if the current trends in spit tobacco use continue," the government's chief public-health officer said yesterday.
A Health and Human Services Department report, "Spit Tobacco and Youth," released by Novello at a news conference, said nearly 20 percent of high-school boys surveyed in 1991 had used smokeless tobacco - snuff or chewing tobacco - in the past 30 days.
The report said 75 percent of the 30,000 new cases of oral cancer in 1992 result from cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and only half of those people will be alive in five years.
The Smokeless Tobacco Council, an industry trade group, contends there is no scientific evidence that the products cause oral cancer or any other disease.
One oral-cancer victim, Rick Bender of San Diego, said he started chewing when he was 12 or 13 and used tobacco for 14 years before undergoing surgery that removed his right jaw and part of his tongue. "I tried to quit 10 or 15 times," he said, and still smokes because "I can't get along without the nicotine."
Reginald Ho, president of the American Cancer Society, called smokeless tobacco "one of the most efficient delivery systems (for nicotine) known to man."
Health and Human Services figures show that while U.S. cigarette consumption dropped from 640 billion cigarettes in 1981 to 510 billion in 1991, use of moist snuff jumped from 30 million pounds to nearly 50 million pounds during those 10 years.
Novello said parents and schools let children use smokeless tobacco because they mistakenly think it's a safe alternative to cigarettes. And 45 percent of major- and minor-league baseball players, "a powerful model for young males," used snuff in 1991.
The health experts assailed the smokeless-tobacco industry for boosting advertising and promotions and for targeting youngsters.
Novello urged Congress to provide money for a smokeless-tobacco education act passed in 1986 but never financed. She also said federal and state laws that limit minors' access to smokeless tobacco need to be enforced.