In an April 19 announcement, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed it was targeting rural, white, male teenagers with an aggressive anti-smokeless tobacco campaign. Promoting the message “smokeless doesn’t mean harmless,” the agency’s “Real Cost” campaign is designed to challenge a habit that has become a tradition in the rural U.S.
“Not only is the target audience using smokeless tobacco at a high rate, but many do not fully understand the negative health consequences of their actions,” Mitch Zeller, JD, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said in an agency news release. “In communities where smokeless tobacco is part of the culture, reaching at-risk teens with a compelling message is critical to help change their understanding of the risks and harms associated with smokeless tobacco use.”
Smokeless tobacco includes dip, chew, snuff and types of tobacco that dissolve when placed in the mouth. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that each day in the U.S. nearly 1,000 males under the age of 18 use smokeless tobacco for the first time – almost as many as male teens who smoke their first cigarette. About one-third of rural white males aged 12 to 17 have tried or are at risk of trying smokeless tobacco – approximately 629,000 male youth nationwide.
Much of the problem can be attributed to the cultural acceptance of smokeless tobacco products among rural teens’ role models, including their fathers, grandfathers, older brothers and community leaders, Zeller told MedPage Today. “When people who these teens most trust and admire openly use and share smokeless tobacco, the product is seen as acceptable and even an expected part of growing up and belonging,” he added.
The “Real Cost” campaign will get the word out via television, radio, print, public signs and billboards, as well as digital and social media. To drive home its message, the campaign will show young men with lip sores, horrific facial scars caused by mouth cancer, and the consequences of nicotine addiction.
The campaign will also join forces with select Minor League Baseball teams to help dispel the link between baseball and smokeless tobacco in the eyes of the targeted audience. This summer, stadiums throughout the country will display campaign advertising and offer fans the chance to meet players who support the “Real Cost” message.
In addition, Zeller noted the FDA is in talks with Major League Baseball about joining the effort. Some major cities, including Boston, New York and San Francisco, have already banned smokeless products in ballparks and other sports venues.
Former Red Sox pitcher, Curt Schilling, who was diagnosed with mouth cancer, said this is a good thing – he just hopes teen boys will listen. “I met men with half a face, half a tongue, half a jaw who tried to warn me,” he told NBC News.