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SNUFF OUT SMOKELESS TOBACCO, TOO

By urging the U.S. Food and Drug administration this week to crack down on chewing tobacco and snuff, the American Medical Association issued a call that should have been heeded long ago.

After all, the link between smokeless tobacco and oral cancer became clear long before the AMA started issuing its annual warnings 10 years ago.Since then, the problem has increased alarmingly - particularly among young people. Between 1970 and 1991, the use of chewing tobacco and snuff nearly quadrupled from 2.2 percent to 8.4 percent. The highest usage is among boys 18 and 19.

The latest development involves a series of scientific studies showing that many youngsters start on smokeless tobacco that is low in nicotine, then switch to more potent brands as they grow older. No wonder that such studies conclude more than 2 million American teenagers are addicted to this dirty, dangerous habit.

In view of all these findings, it's simply unconscionable for the FDA to keep turning a deaf ear to pleas that it classify chewing tobacco and snuff as drugs that should be controlled.

Exactly what controls should there be? For openers, how about mandating a reduction in the amount of nicotine not only in smokeless tobacco but also in cigarettes? How about issuing tougher health warnings against these products? How about limiting the distribution of free samples and imposing restrictions on the way tobacco products are advertised and sold?

But let's not wait for Washington to act. Until that happens, the public ought to apply pressure on behalf of some interim remedies.

For one thing, major league baseball should be prodded to follow the example of the minor leagues by banning spitting and chewing in its ball parks. If the teams won't act, television could help by no longer focusing its cameras on players who spit and chew. Such images send a message to young fans - many of whom idolize athletic stars - that smokeless tobacco is harmless. Harmless? Hardly! Smokeless tobacco is linked to oral cancer and gum disease. Forty percent of oral cancer patients die within five years.

Still another remedy would be to make the use of smokeless tobacco socially unacceptable. It happened once before when the public became fed up with the chewing and spitting that were so widespread in the late 19th century. It can - and must - happen again.

Millions of Americans have stopped smoking since the U.S. Surgeon General started spotlighting the health hazards created by cigarettes. Now Washington should join the medical profession and zero in on smokeless tobacco, too.