You don't smoke it. You don't swallow it. All you do is slosh it around your
mouth and spit out the brown juices every few seconds. OK, so it actually
is pretty disgusting. But so what? After all, it's called
smokeless or chewing tobacco. That means you chew and spit it, not
smoke it, so it can't be as bad as inhaling tobacco smoke into your lungs,
Wrong . . . unfortunately, smokeless doesn't mean harmless. The
fact is, chewing tobacco is every bit as dangerous as smoking it.
What Is Smokeless Tobacco?
also called spit tobacco, chewing tobacco, chew, chaw, dip, plug, and probably a
few other things, comes in two forms: snuff and chewing
Snuff is a fine-grain tobacco that often comes in teabag-like pouches
that users "pinch" or "dip" between their lower lip and gum. Chewing
tobacco comes in shredded, twisted, or "bricked" tobacco leaves that users
put between their cheek and gum. Whether it's snuff or chewing tobacco, you're
supposed to let it sit in your mouth and suck on the tobacco juices, spitting
often to get rid of the saliva that builds up. This sucking and chewing allows
nicotine, which is a drug you can become addicted to, to be absorbed into the
bloodstream through the tissues in your mouth. You don't even need to
Where Does It Come From?
Smokeless tobacco has
been around for a long time. Native people of North and South America chewed
tobacco, and snorting and chewing snuff was popular in Europe and Scandinavia
(the word "snuff" comes from the Scandinavian word "snus").
In the United States, chewing tobacco has long been associated with baseball.
Players chewed it to keep their mouths moist, spit it into their gloves to
soften them up, and used it to make a "spitball," a special pitch that involved
the pitcher dabbing the ball with saliva to cause it to spin off the fingers
easily and break sharply. (Spitballs were banned from the sport in 1920.) By the
1950s, chewing tobacco had fallen out of favor in most of America, so by that
time not too many baseball players were spitting big brown gobs all over the
infield. Instead of chewing their tobacco, most people were smoking it.
But, in the 1970s, people became more aware of the dangers of smoking.
Thinking it was a safe alternative to lighting up, baseball players started
chewing on their tobacco again. Some players even developed the habit of mixing
their chewing tobacco with bubble gum and chewing the whole thing. Gross,
These days, you don't find the majority of professional ballplayers with wads
of chaw in their cheeks. But lots of guys and girls, athletes or not, still find
time for chewing and spitting.
As many as 20% of high school boys
and 2% of high school girls use smokeless tobacco, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. Of the 12 to 14 million American users, one
third are under age 21, and more than half of those developed the habit before
they were 13. Peer pressure is just one of the reasons for starting the habit.
Serious users often graduate from brands that deliver less nicotine to stronger
ones. With each use, you need a little more of the drug to get the same
So What's the Danger?
Just like smoking
cigarettes, chewing smokeless tobacco can eventually rip apart your body and
kill you. It's that simple, really. There's no such thing as a "safe" tobacco
Take Bill Tuttle, for example. An outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, the
Kansas City Athletics (before they moved to Oakland), and the Minnesota Twins,
Tuttle chewed tobacco for most of his career. In fact, a lot of Tuttle's
baseball cards over the years pictured him with a cheek bulging with chewing
tobacco. Thirty-eight years after the end of his baseball career, Tuttle had a
more ominous bulge in his cheek - a huge tumor that was so big that it came
through his cheek and extended through his skin. Doctors removed the tumor,
along with much of Tuttle's face. Chewing tobacco as a young man had cost him
his jawbone, his right cheekbone, a lot of his teeth and gum line, and his taste
buds. Cancer caused by his chewing habit finally claimed him in 1998, but Tuttle
spent the rest of his life trying to steer young people, as well as grown
athletes, away from smokeless tobacco.
Other baseball players have met a similar fate. Even one of the greatest of
all time, Babe Ruth, was fond of dipping and chewing tobacco. He died at age 52
of an oropharyngeal tumor, which is a cancerous tumor in the back part of
But, of course, it isn't just baseball players who learn to regret their
choice to start chewing tobacco. According to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention, each year, about 30,000 Americans learn they have mouth and
throat cancers, and nearly 8,000 Americans die of these diseases. Sadly, only
about half of people with diagnosed mouth or throat cancer survive more than 5
What Can Chewing Tobacco Do to Me?
immediate effects can disrupt your social life: bad breath and yellowish-brown
stains on your teeth. You'll also get mouth sores (about 70% of spit tobacco
users have them). But, it gets a lot more serious than that. Consequences of
chewing and spitting tobacco include:
- cracking and bleeding lips and gums
- receding gums, which can eventually make your teeth fall out
- increased heart rate, high blood
pressure, and irregular heartbeats, all leading to a greater risk of heart
attacks and brain damage (from a stroke)
Oral cancer means cancer of the mouth and can happen in the lips, the tongue,
the floor of the mouth, the roof of the mouth, the cheeks, or gums. It's been
medically proven that long-time use of chewing tobacco can lead to cancer. But
cancer from chewing tobacco doesn't just occur in the mouth. Some of the
cancer-causing agents in the tobacco can get into the lining of your stomach,
your esophagus, and into your bladder.
Quitting the Dipping
If you're a dipper, put
some long thought into breaking the habit and quitting now. When you decide to
quit, don't do it alone. Tell friends or family and enlist their support.
Strategies for breaking the habit include:
- using a nicotine gum or a patch (ask your doctor about these options
- planning ahead and using substitutes such as tobacco-free, mint-leaf
snuff; sugarless gum; hard candy; beef jerky; sunflower seeds; shredded
coconut; raisins; or dried fruit
- getting involved in healthier activities: lifting weights, shooting
baskets, going for a swim, etc.
It's tough to quit, but realize that backsliding is common, so don't give up.
Your chances of success increase with each try!
Updated and reviewed by: Steven Dowshen,
Date reviewed: September 2004
Originally reviewed by: Neil Izenberg,