Nicotine is the most addictive drug in the world, and more people are changing the way they get it. The number of people smoking cigarettes continues to decline in about half of the country, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But smokeless tobacco usage has continued to increase since 2000.
The thought by some smokeless tobacco users is that the alternative is less harmful than cigarettes. While it is true that smokeless tobacco is less likely to cause lung cancer, there are many other harmful consequences, including oral cancer, which is unsightly, expensive to treat, and deadly.
New users of smokeless products can expect bad breath, yellowish-brown stains on teeth, and mouth sores. Often, even more problems surface after repeated use. Those include cracking and bleeding lips and receding gums — which can eventually cause your teeth to fall out.
Smokeless tobacco has many names. You’ll hear it called spit tobacco, chewing tobacco, chew, chaw, dip and plug. It sits in the mouth along the gumline to be sucked on, producing a buildup of saliva that causes frequent spitting. This sucking and chewing allows the addictive nicotine to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the tissues in the mouth.
The greatest concern associated with smokeless tobacco use is oral cancer. Oral cancer is one of the most devastating forms of cancer. Those who survive are almost always left with a significantly impacted quality of life. Effects of oral cancer include facial, head or neck disfigurement as well as a decreased production of saliva, which is essential in the prevention of tooth decay and periodontal disease. All of those issues can cause loss of speech, decreased ability to eat, and depression. The risk of an oral cancer diagnosis with the use of smokeless tobacco products is the same as with the use of smoke products.
The mouth isn’t the only part of the body that can suffer the effects of smokeless tobacco. Over time, users can expect an increased heart rate, high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats. These symptoms all lead to a greater risk of heart attacks, strokes and brain damage.
Be sure to visit your dentist if you are, or have been, a user of smokeless tobacco products. Good at-home oral care and regular check-ups can help detect and prevent many of these harmful side effects. Ultimately, the only way to ensure a healthy mouth for years to come is to stop using smokeless tobacco altogether. Oral Health America has many resources to help tobacco users quit.
Dr. Jed Jacobson, D.D. S., M.S., M.P.H. – Chief Science Officer of Renaissance Life and Health Insurance Company of America