Many people are under the mistaken impression that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to cigarettes, cigars or pipes. This is far from the truth since smokeless tobacco carries its own health risks, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Smokeless Tobacco Types
There are several types of “smokeless” tobacco products, so called because instead of lighting them you chew or snort them. While these types of tobacco do avoid the problems associated with tobacco smoke, including lung diseases, they can cause many types of cancer, including that of the lip, throat and mouth. The various types of smokeless tobacco include:
- Snuff – Snuff is very finely-ground tobacco and can be moist, which is placed between the cheek and gum, or dry, which is snorted in the nose. Use of snuff can lead to cancer of the cheek or gum, sinus problems, or tooth decay
- Chewing Tobacco – Chewing tobacco is coarsely ground leaves that are placed in a wad between the cheek and gums. Saliva produced by the mouth surrounds the wad and extracts the juices. These are spit out or swallowed. This can lead to cancer of the mouth or esophagus and can also promote dental trouble.
- Snus – Snus is a Swedish product that is similar to snuff, but is contained in a small pouch placed between the cheek and gum. The side effects of snus are similar to those of snuff.
- Dissolvable Tobacco – Tobacco lozenges are not the same as the lozenges used to stop smoking. They contain ground tobacco and can contribute to cancer of the esophagus, mouth and throat.
Is Smokeless Tobacco Less Dangerous than Smoking?
In some ways, smokeless tobacco is less dangerous than smoking. However, the dangers are not minimal and in many ways are simply transferred from one part of the body to another. Smokeless tobacco is still associated with a number of health dangers, including:
- Cancer – There is no doubt that smokeless tobacco helps users avoid the lung dangers associated with smoking. However, tobacco still carries carcinogens, or substances that cause cancer, no matter how it is used. Therefore, cancer of the throat, mouth, lips, tongue or gums is a real possibility with smokeless tobacco. If the tobacco is swallowed, there is also a risk of cancer of the stomach or digestive tract.
- Addiction – Smokeless tobacco is no different than smokeable tobacco in terms of addiction. Nicotine, the primary drug in tobacco, is activated whether you smoke, chew or simply hold the tobacco in your mouth. This means that you can become addicted to smokeless tobacco just as easily as to cigarettes
- Dental Problems – Cavities and gum disease are common with smokeless tobacco because of the method of use. When tobacco sits against the teeth and gums for extended periods of time, they can become irritated. This can lead to cavities, infections and other dental problems. The use of oral tobacco is also a hygiene issue, leading to bad breath and yellow teeth
- Heart Disease – Smokeless tobacco can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, because nicotine constricts your blood vessels. Some evidence has been presented that suggests that the long-term use of smokeless tobacco can be as damaging to your heart as other forms of tobacco use
- Precancerous Mouth Lesions – Small white patches known as leukoplakia often appear inside the mouth of users of smokeless tobacco. These lesions are not only prone to infection, they can also lead to cancer and are consider precursors of more serious cancerous conditions.
Quitting Is Your Best Option
Although it is difficult to quit any form of tobacco, the benefits are well worth the effort. The moment you stop smoking, dipping or chewing you begin to gain health benefits. Smokeless tobacco is not a good substitute for cigarettes, although many people who are attempting to quit smoking switch to smokeless tobacco. It is more likely that you will end up both smoking and using smokeless tobacco.
Quitting smoking for good usually involves both physical and mental support. There are drugs that can lessen your craving for tobacco along with over-the-counter products such as gum and patches. Mental support can be gained from group sessions with others who are trying to quit or from a mentor who can give you guidance. Support from family and friends is also helpful when you are trying to quit using tobacco.
Tobacco is highly addictive, so do not believe that you can quit without help and support. Talk to your doctor about your options for quitting, or visit websites such as the American Lung Association to identify resources to help you stop using tobacco of all types.