Experts say more young athletes are chewing tobacco while playing in sports despite knowing the risks about tobacco.

Joel Schreyer has been playing hockey since he was six. It’s also the place he picked up a dangerous habit: the 19-year-old chews tobacco.

“If we’re on the bus on a road trip, it’s something to do,” says Schreyer.

Four years ago, it was a way for him to fit in. But now smokeless tobacco is an addiction he said has gotten worse. “Maybe it was once a week, (but) in more recent years, it’s a couple times a week.”

According to a study, 75 per cent of young athletes like Schreyer have tried chewing tobacco. In popular sports like football, baseball, and hockey, 50 per cent are now regular users.

Dean Kreillaars of the Sport Medicine Council of Manitoba thinks this could be very detrimental to these athletes. “Chewing tobacco has very serious health risks,” he said.

Risks can include oral cancer, and even death. While it won’t affect performance, Kreillaars said it comes with a heavy price tag: $21 a tin.

“It’s somewhat odd than an athlete will use nicotine,” said Kreillaars.

Despite a growing anti-tobacco movement in professional sport, the culture of smokeless tobacco is still prominent. Many major league players still chew.

That’s why experts said it’s important to target younger players so they won’t start the habit.

Michael Holmes, a 16-year-old baseball player, said he has never chewed. That’s because he says his parents and coaches warned him about the effects at a young age.

“I would like to see programs implemented at a young age because in younger adolescents, I think it can be easily prevented,” said Holmes.

Jason Miller says they’re taking steps to educate parents and their kids. “We're starting to take action on getting info out there to younger kids… and the parents of those younger kids.”

Sports leagues like Baseball Manitoba now work with medical experts to promote awareness and education about the signs of addiction: spit bottles, half-empty coffee cups, and physical cues like moving their lips a certain way throughout the day.

Miller hopes his message as a former chewer will also help others from taking up the habit.

Dean Kreillaars said that along with coaches, parents also need to get actively involved. “Our surveys tell us parents are unaware until a few years after they start using smokeless tobacco.”

If you chew tobacco, Kreillaars said follow these commandments:

  • Look for signs of changes in your mouth
  • Have your dentist check your mouth twice a year
  • Quitting is always the best route

With his eyes on the big leagues, player Joel Schreyer said quitting chew is also a goal. Right now, however, he’s taking it one shot at a time.

 - with a story by CTV's Rajeev Dhir