The Habit

The habit of chewing tobacco has a long history and was practiced by the Native American Indians long before the arrival of European settlers. Chewing tobacco became increasing popular in North America during the 19th century. Typically a wad of tobacco was chewed and the juices periodically dumped by spitting. The act of chewing releases nicotine which is then absorbed through the moist lining of the mouth. Chewing tobacco has always had an association with American baseball and players would use their spittle to moisten the ball to produce spin. Several famous baseball stars succumbed to the habit, including the harditting and hard drinking, Babe Ruth. Chewing tobacco began to lose popularity Along with the general American population as smoking became the favored means of obtaining nicotine. However, the widespread realization of the health hazards of smoking since the 1970's has resolved in a resurgence of chewing tobacco use. Today, most consumers of smokeless tobacco have switched to 'dipping' tobacco. In this form, powdered tobacco is placed in a small pouch which is not chewed but placed between the cheek and gum. Chewing tobacco is also popular in India and is mixed with betel nuts or lime. Chewing tobacco has never been common in Europe, although popular with coal miners, for obvious reasons.

The Health Hazards

So is smokeless tobacco a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes? The obvious point is that smokeless tobacco contains nicotine and if the user stops they will experience nicotine withdrawal and cravings. In this way it is no different from smoking tobacco. In fact, quit rates from smokeless tobacco are similar to that found in cigarette smokers. Chewing tobacco contains at least 30 known carcinogens, or cancer causing compounds. Tobacco chewers are at particularly high risk of developing oral cancers, involving the gum, tongue or cheek areas. Treatment is mainly by surgical excision and often results in severe facial disfigurement. As carcininogens can be absorbed through the lining of the mouth, there is a higher risk for cancers at distant sites, such as the pancreas and bladder.

And it Gets Worse

Smokeless tobacco discolours teeth and may cause tooth decay and gum damage. The habit has been linked to the formation of pre-cancerous lesions in the mouth, called, leukoplakia. Leukoplakia leads to oral cancer in about 5% of cases. Chewing tobacco may have adverse effects on reproductive health and has been shown to reduce sperm counts in men and to decrease birth weights in pregnant women. It is also associated with bad breath and the constant habit of expelling tobacco juice is decidedly unattractive.

The Bottom Line

Smokeless tobacco is not a safer alternative to smoking tobacco. All forms of tobacco constituent a health hazard, no matter how they are consumed or used.