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The Hidden Dangers of Smokeless Tobacco

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Most people are aware of the fact that smoking cigarettes is a health hazard, but the dangers of smokeless tobacco are hidden behind smoke and mirrors.

All types of smokeless tobacco contain not only nicotine but chemicals known to cause cancer. These carcinogens are in chewing tobacco, snuff, snus and the newest craze, dissolvable tobacco. The finely-ground dissolvable tobacco is flavored and shaped into sticks, pellets or strips that melt in the user’s mouth within a few to 30 minutes. The stick forms of smokeless tobacco contain three times more nicotine than an average cigarette, making it harder to quit.

Chewing tobacco can come in the form of loose leaves, plugs and twists or rolls. A piece of tobacco is placed between the cheek and gum while users chew on it and spit out the tobacco juices and saliva that builds up. Dry snuff is a powdered form that can be placed in the mouth or sniffed up the nose. When smokeless tobacco is used, the body starts to crave the nicotine. The body also adjusts to the amount of tobacco needed to get a buzz, so more tobacco is needed to get the same feeling.

Some might think smokeless tobacco is not as bad because it does not cause health problems from the actual smoke produced from a cigar or cigarette, but that is far from the truth. This type of tobacco contains the same harmful elements that are in cigarettes, which include 28 chemicals known to cause cancer. In addition to its being more addictive than smoking, smokeless tobacco often causes irreversible side effects on the mouth.

Smokeless tobacco can cause bad breath and discolored teeth, two of the most obvious side effects. Visits to the dentist become less pleasant because gum disease, cavities, painful sores and tooth loss can occur. More serious issues include leukoplakia, a white leathery patch that grows in the mouth and can be cancerous.

Because the tobacco is directly exposed to the soft tissue of the mouth or mucous membranes of the nose, there is a greater risk of developing oral cancer. Cancer of the mouth and throat, where the tobacco is held, often needs surgical removal, and parts of the face, tongue, cheek or lip must be removed along with it. If that isn’t scary enough, heart problems may arise. Nicotine can cause an increased heart rate, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats.

Additionally, the new forms of smokeless tobacco resemble candy or breath strips. As a result, the minty flavors increase the chance of nicotine poisoning because it is attractive to the younger population.

Smokeless cigarettes, also known as electronic cigarettes, can be deceptive as well. They produce a fine, heated mist instead of smoke to give someone the sensation of smoking. The battery-powered devices mimic cigarettes in look and feel so someone can “quit” smoking or smoke without the harmful chemicals. Although it doesn’t have tobacco, the electronic cigarette does contain nicotine and propylene glycol. It doesn’t produce secondhand smoke, which is good for someone who doesn’t smoke, but for the smoker of the electronic cigarettes, it may still be dangerous because of toxic chemicals and mislabeled levels of nicotine.

According to an analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a variety of chemicals toxic to humans are present in some of the smokeless cigarettes. One brand contained diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze. It is known to produce coughing and dizziness when inhaled. Nitrosamines, a class of approximately 300 chemical compounds, are most often used as food additives. According to The Linus Pauling Institute, 90 percent of known nitrosamines are carcinogenic and have the potential to cause cancer. The FDA analysis of smokeless cigarettes showed the presence of nitrosamines in half the brands tested. The analysis also indicated that incorrect labeling on smokeless cigarettes may expose smokers to unexpected nicotine or higher levels of nicotine than indicated, which undermines the use of this cigarette substitute as a way to quit.

The least amount of time someone smokes or chews makes it easier to quit and decreases the chance of side effects. If oral cancer is found early, it increases the possibility curing this potentially disfiguring cancer. Experts advise smokeless tobacco users to check their mouths often, looking closely at the places where tobacco is held.

Dental exams include a thorough check of oral tissues for signs of mouth cancer. One should see a doctor right away if there is a lump or thickening in the mouth or neck, trouble chewing, swallowing, or moving a tongue or jaw, as well as soreness, swelling or a red or white patch that does not go away.

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Written by: Kimberly Horg