School sports don't keep kids away from tobacco


High school athletes smoke only slightly less than their inactive classmates, but use snuff or chewing tobacco more often, says a study drawn from a national survey of American adolescents.

About 28 percent of the athletes smoked compared to 34 percent of those who did not participate in sports, according to the study by Karen K. Gerlach, Ph.D., M.P.H., and others from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which conducted the survey in 1996.

The study appears in the American Journal of Health Behavior.

The students interviewed in the survey were a nationally representative sample of 16,357 adolescents in grades nine through 12. About 71 percent of the boys and 57 percent of the girls took part in organized sports, a heartening figure in an era of obesity and declining fitness, say the researchers. Rates of sports participation were higher among white students, males and rural youth.

Playing sports did seem to keep some students away from tobacco, however. The odds of currently smoking cigarettes were lower for youth who participated in organized sports, compared to non-players. The non-athletes tended to smoke more cigarettes, and more often, than the athletes. Cigar smoking was about the same in both groups.

But while sports may induce some not to light up, they do not help keep student athletes away from less incendiary forms of tobacco.

"Unlike cigarette use, both chewing tobacco and snuff use were higher among athletic adolescents," Gerlach says, suggesting they may be influenced by media images such as close-ups of professional athletes spitting tobacco juice during the World Series.

Using these smokeless tobacco products can lead to nicotine addiction just as cigarettes do, and likewise increase risk of cancers of the mouth and throat, the development of precancerous sores in the mouth, and receding gums, according to the American Cancer Society.

Regardless of their participation in athletics, almost three out of four students who used tobacco had at least considered quitting, says Gerlach.

"Although adolescents who participated in organized sports were more likely to report ever wanting to quit, they were less likely to have made two or more quit attempts," says Gerlach. Since smokers usually try to quit several times before succeeding, additional attempts to stop smoking are considered a sign of commitment to quitting.

Athletes who smoked tended to think that quitting was easier, compared to non-athletes, she says. "This may indicate that adolescents participating in organized sports underestimate the difficulty associated with cessation."

Quitting sooner, rather than later, has important health consequences. Delaying attempts to quit can increase smokers' likelihood of becoming physically addicted to tobacco.

However, athletes may have an unrealistic view of how hard it is to quit smoking. For instance, they may stop smoking during the sports season in which they play, but view this as an interruption, not really an opening to quit.

Nevertheless, playing sports may also offer a chance to explain again to students why smoking is so harmful to their health. Questions about smoking status should be included in all sports physicals, she says. Coaches, parents, nurses and doctors can use entry and participation in sports to make clear that using tobacco impairs peak physical performance.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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