The Heinous Truth Behind Smokeless Tobacco

July 22, 2015

smltco“Suspended! You’ve got to be kidding! You can’t suspend me for a week now. I need all the help I can get to get through chemistry. And the dean says if I’m caught again, I won’t be able to play baseball in the spring.” Tony was furious.

“It’s not like I did anything very serious,” complained Tony later to some friends. “I had a can of smokeless tocacco in my pocket, and somebody saw me take some as I left the school. That doesn’t hurt anyone. What’s the big deal? It’s not like I was drinking or smoking on the school steps.”

Tony felt angry and cheated. He knew there was a school rule about using tobacco, particularly smoking it with a pipe. But he always thought of that as being about smoking on school property. The coaches had warned hom about using smokeless tobacco, but he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

As part of his suspension, Tony had to take a short class on tobacco and drug use. He was angry. He couldn’t see how smokeless tobacco belonged with “drug use.”

A Different Kind of Risk

Tony learned a lot about drugs and addiction. He learned that a chemical found in tobacco, nicotine, is addictive. This is a chemical smokers get when they inhale. It is also released into the mouth, and thereby into the bloodstream, of a person using smokeless tobacco. The person becomes addicted to nicotine and becomes dependent on it. This is a real, physical need for the chemical. Because of this, the smoker or smokeless user feels that he can’t stop using tobacco, even if he really wants go.

Many people share Tony’s inaccurate belief that smokeless tobacco isn’t as serious a problem as cigarette smoking. They are dead wrong. Virtually everyone knows that cigarette smoking is linked to lung cancer and other lung diseases. Tony figured that smokeless tobacco doesn’t cause lung cancer, because you don’t inhale smoke into your lungs.

But what Tony didn’t realize is that many of the same chemicals that are in the smoke of a cigarette and cause lung cancer end up in the saliva of a person using smokeless tobacco. Some are spit out. But the chemicals in the smokeless are in contact with the inside of the user’s mouth. Those chemicals can damage cells in the gum or the mouth lining. Instead of lung cancer, the risk becomes cancer of the mouth, cheek, and throat.

More of the chemicals that can cause cancer end up in the mouth of a smokeless user than in the lungs of a smoker. Nicotine is only one. Other carcinogens–the chemicals that cause cancer–that get into the mouth of a smokeless user include nitrosamines, cadmium (a toxic metal used in batteries), and radioactive material like uranium and polonium.

Any of these materials can change a cell into a cancer cell. When chemicals are inhaled, they stay in the lungs for a while, and then are mostly exhaled. Smokeless tobacco is usually held between the user’s cheek and gum for a much longer time. One scientist has said that smokeless tobacco is one of the most efficient means of bringing and keeping carcinogens in contact with mouth tissue.

Finally, people are beginning to wake up to the dangers of tobacco smoke. More offices, schools, restaurants, trains, buses, and planes are nonsmoking. Nonsmokers are outspoken in complaining about cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoking in public and private areas. And they have lots of support: Cigarette use is declining.

The statistic that has health professionals worried is that the use of smokeless tobacco is on the rise, especially among teens and preteens. Why?

Many people have the mistaken idea that smokeless tobacco is less harmful than smoking. Not only is that incorrect, but smokeless tobacco seems to be more addictive and to cause health problems more rapidly than cigarettes.

Snuffing Out an Image

The support of baseball has been blamed for much of the increased use of smokeless tobacco among teens and preteens. A common image of a professional baseball player includes a wad of tobacco in his mouth. Baseball professionals are not happy with that image.

Smokeless tobacco, including snuff, was touted for use when smoking was not possible to get that nicotine hit: in the barn, on the baseball field, and so on. For years, chewing tobacco and snuff almost disappeared from use, except in these special cases. Many people objected to chewing tobacco because it involved spitting out the tobacco juice. Early in the 20th century, people realized that spitting tobacco juice also meant spitting germs. They saw that diseases were spread that way. As a result, chewing tobacco use dropped.

That lesson needs to be relearned today. A New York Yankees trainer complained that the dugout during a game became a “sea of spit. It smells; it’s ugly; it’s gross….” Think about it. If your friend has a cold or strep infection, do you want him to sneeze or cough or spit all over you?

Outlawed in the Minors

At last, baseball is starting to take action. In the spring of 1993, the use of any smokeless or chewing tobacco by coaches, players, or managers in the minor leagues was prohibited, including A, AA and AAA. If anyone is found using tobacco on or near the field, that person is given a large fine.

A spokesperson for a minor league team sees this move as a beginning. As these players move up to the major leagues, they won’t bring an addiction to smokeless tobacco with them. Today many major league players are worried about the use of smokeless tobacco by teens and by players. Some don’t use tobacco; some wish they didn’t, but haven’t been able to quit. Many are trying to help younger people learn about the dangers of smokeless tobacco use.

Taking a Strong Stand Against Tobacco Use

Most schools have strict regulations about tobacco use on the premises. Some states, such as Illinois, have statutes prohibiting the use, sale, or possession of tobacco by students on school campuses or at school-sponsored events.

Individual schools may have stricter regulations. Some drop players from sports teams who have been seen using tobacco products on or off school premises. They feel it is their responsibility to take a strong stand against tobacco use to make students stop and think.

Tony was angry about his suspension. If he learned enough from his addiction class, he may begin to realize that he might be the lucky one. Losing a week of class is temporary. Losing part of your face or mouth–even your life–to cancer is permanent. Which would you choose?

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