It is (thankfully!) common knowledge that cigarettes are extremely harmful to your health, can wreak havoc on your mouth, and lead to lunch and oral cancers—amongst other issues. As an alternative, some people might turn to chewing tobacco and see it as a safer product because it doesn’t produce any toxic smoke. However, it’s actually just as addicting and harmful as cigarettes, though knowledge about this substance is generally more limited. Why is chewing tobacco so bad, and what effects can it have on your health? Let’s take a look!
Chewing tobacco is actually only one type of smokeless tobacco. It consists of shredded tobacco leaves, twisted leaves or “bricks” of leaves, which a user places between their cheek and gums. The other form is called snuff, which is finely ground almost like tea and can be either moist or dry. It usually comes in small bags and is also placed between the cheek and gum, or sometimes inhaled through the nose. Common slang terms for these products are chew, pinch, and dip.
Both forms of chewing tobacco are chewed or sucked on. Most people periodically spit out the mixture of saliva and tobacco juice that is produced, while others swallow it. The tobacco is absorbed through the gums and the lining or the cheek, along with the tobacco juice, if swallowed.
Because smokeless tobacco contains nicotine, it will cause users to become addicted just as they would with cigarettes. Users also often put the tobacco in the same spot of their mouth each time, which will cause particular damage to the teeth, gums, and cheek in that area. However, the total damage to the user’s oral and overall health are numerous.
Firstly, smokeless tobacco discolors teeth, turning them yellow-brown. The tobacco juice in the mouth also coats the teeth and breaks down the enamel, leading to cavities and tooth decay. The tobacco also causes the gums to recede, leading to gingivitis. Additionally, the user will suffer from bad breath and a diminished sense of taste and smell.
Those are just the minor risks. Over time, extensive damage to the teeth and gums can lead to tooth loss and can damage the underlying jawbone. The risk for heart disease and high blood pressure begins to increase, as oral health issues have been directly linked to increased susceptibility to heart conditions. The user will also begin to experience sores and lesions forming in their mouth due to the irritation the tobacco creates, which can be very painful and become easily infected.
It is common for smokeless tobacco users to form leukoplakia, a precancerous condition that presents as white patches on the lips, cheeks or tongue. There are at least 28-30 chemicals in smokeless tobacco that are known to cause cancer, so it is no surprise that, as with cigarettes, there is an incredibly high risk of cancer in the cheeks, gums, lips, tongue, and throat. In severe cases, entire portions of a user’s jaw and vocal cords may need to be removed to treat the disease. Sometimes, this results in them needing to breathe through a tube in their throat and speak with a device that is pressed up against the throat to produce sound—not a life anybody wishes to lead. Other cancers are also possible with smokeless tobacco, though the aforementioned are the most common.
As with cigarettes, quitting smokeless tobacco comes with a difficult withdrawal period. Although many users will relapse during this time, quitting—even eventually—will reduce your chance of getting cancer or other serious health problems.
If you or someone you know is looking to quit, there are many great resources available. KillTheCan.org and the National Institute of Health both have excellent online resources that will help you find the right cessation plan for you. You can also dial the helplines 1-800-QUIT-NOW (800-786-8669) or 877-44U-QUIT (877-488-7848) for resources, or talk to someone at the cancer.gov live chat to get you started.
Although it is best to never start using tobacco products, it’s important to know the particular risks associated with smokeless tobacco. Just because it doesn’t produce smoke like cigarettes doesn’t mean it’s any less dangerous to your health. The hazards are real and can have a profoundly detrimental impact on every aspect of your life. If you need help quitting, we strongly encourage you to use the resources above to help get yourself on a new, healthier path. Your body—and your teeth—will thank you.