I hear about risks all the time, and you get the white spots in your mouth, but I don’t have [them] so I don’t really think anything about it.
– Jack Groober, 17, on the risks of smokeless tobacco
“I’d put in sometimes up to half a can, like fill it all the way up through here,” says 17-year-old Steven Ray, demonstrating how he uses smokeless tobacco.
For two years, Ray has used “dip” or “chew” – slang terms for smokeless tobacco products. And all that time, he was convinced that it was relatively safe.
“I was like, man, they say smoking is bad, maybe this isn’t as bad for you,” says Ray.
It seems a lot of teens feel the same way. According to a new survey by the U.S. Surgeon General, 77 percent of teens recognize the dangers of cigarettes, but only 40 percent know that chewing tobacco is harmful, too.
“A lot of people, as these numbers indicate, believe that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to smoking,” says Andy Lord with the American Cancer Society. “In fact, it is not.”
Kids know smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, but the American Cancer Society says smokeless tobacco isn’t any safer. It can cause mouth and throat cancer.
“Really, the only difference between smokeless tobacco and smoking is where you get the cancer,” says Lord.
Lord says that parents and their kids should research the dangers of smokeless tobacco together. One place to start is the American Cancer Society website. There are also videos and print materials that graphically explain the dangers.
Lord also suggests that parents ask their child’s dentist or doctor to discuss the dangers of chewing tobacco.
“What we know from research is that with kids, they are much more likely to respond to advice from a medical official than they are a parent,” says Lord.
Steven Ray used to think smokeless tobacco was relatively safe, but now he knows more.
“Not until I started looking at the facts, my friend would show his mouth and he’d have blisters all inside of it, white cancerous cells. And that just wasn’t what I wanted.”
Think smokeless tobacco isn’t a problem? Consider the following:
- More than 14 percent of U.S. high school boys (grades 9-12) are current smokeless tobacco users (used within the past 30 days).
- Nearly one-fifth of Caucasian high school boys are current smokeless tobacco users.
- In some states, smokeless tobacco use among high school males is particularly high – Montana (29.8%), Wyoming (28.8%) and West Virginia (28.6%).
- Among high school seniors who have used smokeless tobacco, nearly three-fourths began by the ninth grade.
- Since 1970, smokeless tobacco has gone from a product used primarily by older men, to one for which young men comprise the largest market segment. That is, in 1970, males 65 and older were nearly six times as likely to regularly use smokeless tobacco as males ages 18-24. However, recent studies show that today, young males are 50 percent more likely to be regular smokeless tobacco users than older males.
- A similar pattern is evident for “moist snuff,” the most popular type of smokeless tobacco. Between 1970 and 1991, the regular use of moist snuff by 18-24 year old males increased nearly ten-fold – from less than one percent to more than six percent. Conversely, use among males 65 and older decreased by almost half – from four percent to two percent.
Smokeless tobacco is a harmful habit. It can often grow into a strong addiction, and its use can lead to cancer. Be aware of the following signs which may indicate that your child is using smokeless tobacco.
- Bad breath
- Smelly hair and clothes
- Yellow-stained teeth and fingers
- Frequent colds
- Decreased sense of smell and taste
- Difficulty keeping up with sports and athletic activities
- Bleeding gums
- Frequent mouth sores
Addiction to smokeless tobacco is often as difficult to break as cigarettes. It also has similar, serious side effects as smoking. If you suspect that your child is using smokeless tobacco, it’s important to discuss the harm they may be causing themselves. Instead of preaching to your child, however, it may help to learn why he/she started using tobacco in the first place. Consider the following reasons provided by experts at KidsHealth.
- Independence and adulthood – Kids often use tobacco to look or feel grown up. The obviously aren’t aware of the “tobacco trap.” That is, most adults who smoke today began as teenagers and would love to quit, but it’s a difficult struggle. Explain this paradox to your child.
- Risk and rebellion – Although it may be difficult to talk to your child if he/she sees cigarettes or smokeless tobacco as a way to stand apart from the crowd, keep the channels of communication open as best you can. Also, if everyone is smoking, not smoking is a sign of individuality. Remind your child of the vast difference between the media image of cool smokers and the reality of the situation. When was the last time the model in the cigarette ad coughed up blackened phlegm? Does your child know that the original Marlboro Man died an awful death from cancer and urged people not to smoke before he died? How often do two smoking lovers wheeze sweet nothings into one another’s ear? Convey the message that individuality is one thing, lighting up is another.
- Chilling out – Adolescence can be a stressful time, and smoking has long been viewed as a way to relax. Whether it is or is not relaxing, we know it does have extremely harmful consequences. To help your child cope with stress, make sure you make time for conversation (and listening), and try to find out why he/she is stressed. You can also offer some healthy alternatives for relaxing, such as exercise, yoga, meditation. Try to make your home as stress-free as possible, where problems are solved rather than created.
- National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
- Drug Free AZ
- American Cancer Society
A new line of smokeless tobacco called “Snus” has health officials worried. Supposedly the new “dip” just tucks under your lip and stays there- no chewing and no spitting, which means it can be used just about anywhere- even as the ads say, “At a concert, right in front of security guards.” But it is still tobacco and it’s still dangerous.