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Primer: Smokeless Tobacco

close up image of a can of loose chewing tobacco.

Many people think using smokeless tobacco is safer than smoking. Just because there's no smoke, doesn't mean it's safe.

A person who uses 8 to 10 dips or chews a day receives the same amount of nicotine as a heavy smoker who smokes 30 to 40 cigarettes a day.

Spit tobacco is placed inside the mouth, which gives the user a constant high from the nicotine. It's made with a mixture of tobacco, nicotine, sweeteners, abrasives, salts and chemicals. It contains more than 3,000 chemicals, including 28 known carcinogens.

The most harmful carcinogens in smokeless tobacco are substances called tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs), the National Cancer Institute says. TSNAs are formed during the growing, curing, fermenting, and aging of tobacco. The amount of these substances in smokeless tobacco can be very high.

Other chemicals

These are some of the other harmful chemicals in smokeless tobacco:

  • Polonium 210 (a rare, naturally occurring element; some polonium 210 comes from radioactive fallout)

  • Lead 210 (a radioactive isotope of lead)

  • Cadmium (used in rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries)

  • Cyanide

  • Arsenic

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

  • Benzene

  • Lead

Spit tobacco is sold in 2 forms:

  • Chew. Chew comes in 2 main types. The first is the most popular and usually is simply called "chew." This is a leafy form of tobacco usually sweetened with molasses or similar substances and is sold in pouches. Users keep the chew between the cheek and gums for several hours at a time. The second type is called a plug. A plug is chew tobacco that has been pressed into a brick. Users usually bite off or cut a piece of the plug off and place it between the gum and cheek.

  • Snuff. Snuff comes in 2 main types, moist and nasal (powdered). Moist snuff is usually called dip. It's sold in a circular can called a "tin" and users place the tobacco between their lip and gum. The tobacco is typically flavored. This process is known as "dipping." Dry snuff is meant to be inhaled. A user typically places the powder on the back of their hand in a natural space that is referred to as "the snuff box." The user then snorts the powder up their nose. People also sniff it. Using snuff also is called "dipping."

Health effects

Smokeless tobacco, like cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, is addictive. The nicotine in tobacco is mostly responsible for the addiction. A person using smokeless tobacco gets 3 to 4 times the amount of nicotine as that in a cigarette. The nicotine in smokeless tobacco is absorbed by the body more slowly than in smoking, but it remains in the body longer.

Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco affects the cardiovascular system and can cause heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and cancer of the lip, tongue, cheek, throat, stomach, and esophagus.

Other results from using smokeless tobacco include cracking and bleeding lips and gums, precancerous mouth sores called oral leukoplakia, tooth abrasion, gum recession, gum and tooth disease, loss of teeth and bone in the jaw, and chronic bad breath.

How to quit

Quitting smokeless tobacco is hard, but it can be done. To break the habit:

  • Ask your health care provider where you can get support in your effort to quit.

  • Think about nicotine replacement products like nicotine gum or a patch.

  • Try using substitutes like tobacco-free mint-leaf snuff, sugarless gum, hard candy, beef jerky, sunflower seeds, shredded coconut, raisins, or dried fruit.

  • Make a list of all the reasons you want to quit. Keep it with you and look at it often.

  • Get involved in healthier activities like lifting weights, shooting baskets, or swimming.

Online Medical Reviewer: Brown, Kim, APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Perez, Eric, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2017
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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