BOSTON — Some high school nurses say they have noticed fewer students smoking cigarettes, but they can’t be sure if more are switching to smokeless tobacco as a substitute.
“There is definitely less smoking that we can detect on their clothes,” said Marlborough High’s Virginia Gadbois, a school nurse since 1986, after the release earlier this month of a survey that indicates teens have switched from cigarettes to other tobacco products.
The report, conducted by the state health and education departments and funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, surveyed middle and high school students about their tobacco habits. It concluded that for the first time, high school students are using more smokeless tobacco and cigars than regular cigarettes.
The study says 16 percent of high school students said they had used cigarettes in the past 30 days, whereas 17.6 percent said they had used other kinds of tobacco products.
High school nurses say they haven’t noticed any increase in such products, but don’t deny students are using them.
“I’m not saying it’s not here, I’m sure it is. I’m saying I’m not seeing it,” Gadbois said.
She said she no longer smells smoke wafting from the girl’s bathroom.
Nicole Marcinkiewicz, a nurse at Natick High School, said she hasn’t dealt with any complications due to smokeless tobacco, such as oral cancer.
Still, organizations like Tobacco Free Mass, a policy organization based in Framingham, say youth are drawn to products like flavored tobacco lozenges, small flavored cigars and dissolvable bags of flavored tobacco.
“It’s not surprising given the fact that the tobacco industry markets their products to young people,” Executive Director Russet Morrow Breslau said.
These products cost between $1 and $7, she said, whereas a pack of cigarettes costs as much as $9.
“That points to the fact that youth are price-sensitive. They are turning to these less expensive products that are marketed to them,” Morrow Breslau said.
The education department’s study follows a proposal in Gov. Deval Patrick’s fiscal 2011 budget to increase the sales tax on smokeless tobacco and cigars to the same level as regular cigarettes.
While these products are already taxed at rates varying from 30 to 90 percent, the governor’s budget would raise the taxes to about 110 to 120 percent of their cost - the same increase imposed on cigarettes in 2008.
“These things weren’t increased back then, and the idea is to sort of catch up,” said Robert Bliss, a spokesman for the Department of Revenue.
Some Massachusetts legislators say raising the tax is a good way to discourage young people from buying tobacco.
“This is a product that’s causing a lot of damage to people, hurting a lot of people, killing a lot of people. It makes no sense to me that a product like that wouldn’t be taxed,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, the Senate sponsor of a bill mirroring Patrick’s budget proposal. The bill was recently sent to a study committee.
Rep. Peter Koutoujian, D-Waltham, who led the 2008 effort to increase cigarette tax by $1 per pack, spoke Wednesday at an anti-smoking rally.
“I’m not interested in taxes for raising money. However, if you can reduce consumption of a product that’s going to be addictive, that’d be a tax I’d consider,” Koutoujian said yesterday.
Other legislators, including Rep. Danielle Gregoire, D-Marlborough, and Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, are wary of any new taxes.
Peisch said she likes the idea of an increased tax to dissuade young people from using tobacco, but she is hesitant to support any new taxes this year.
Peisch said her stance “is less connected to the merits of the particular tax on smokeless tobacco and more connected to the lack of support for taxes at this point in general.”
Speaker Robert DeLeo has said the House budget will not include new taxes.
By Laura Krantz, Wickedlocal
March 29, 2010