Bookmark and Share

Chewing Tobacco

Published: May 14, 2012
Dear TeenHealthFX,
What exactly is chewing tobacco and are there any risks with using it?
Signed: Chewing Tobacco

Dear Chewing Tobacco,


Chewing tobacco is one of several different types of smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco refers to tobacco or tobacco blends that are chewed, sucked on or sniffed, rather than being smoked. Some people use various types of smokeless tobacco because they like it. Others believe it to be safe alternative to smoking cigarettes. But whatever draws you to “chew and chaw,” beware of the serious health problems you are putting yourself at risk for. 

So what exactly is chewing tobacco?

Chewing tobacco (also known as “chew” or “dip”) is loose tobacco leaves that are sweetened (often with sugar and molasses) and packaged in a pouch. The tobacco is placed between your cheek and gum and is held it there, sometimes for hours. Usually the tobacco juice is spit out by users, but some people who are a little more addicted will actually swallow some of the juices.

It is estimated that about 10 million Americans use smokeless tobacco products, with about 3 million of those users under the age of 21.  

So what are the health risks?

Smokeless tobacco products are less lethal than cigarettes, but that doesn’t make them harm-free. Chewing tobacco contains 28 cancer-causing substances, so the long-term use can definitely result in serious health problems. And there is nicotine in chewing tobacco, so addiction can absolutely occur as well. So let’s look at some of the health-related problems that face people who use chewing tobacco:

Addiction: Just like cigarettes, you can get addicted to chewing tobacco since smokeless tobacco does contain nicotine. Because of how you use chewing tobacco, you can actually absorb more nicotine from chewing tobacco than you can from cigarettes. So what does it mean to be addicted?

·         Users will develop a tolerance of the nicotine in chewing tobacco, needing more and more over time to feel the same effects – and this can lead to more dangerous habits like buying brands with more nicotine, using chewing tobacco more often, swallowing the juices from the tobacco, or even leaving the chewing tobacco in your mouth overnight.

·         There can be withdrawal from chewing tobacco, which can bring on intense cravings, increased appetite, and mood changes like depression and irritability. 

Cancer: When you use chewing tobacco, you increase your risk of developing certain types of cancers, such as:

·         Cancer in the esophagus

·         Various types of oral cancer, including mouth, throat, cheek, gums, lips, and tongue cancer

·         Pancreatic cancer

·         Stomach cancer

·         Kidney cancer

Many forms of cancer can be life-threatening. But even if you do not lose your life, surgery to remove certain types of cancer can disfigure your jaw, chin, neck, or face. Take the case of Rick Bender, who states that the game of baseball (he played semi-pro ball in California) largely influenced his use of chewing tobacco – a habit that cost him a third of his tongue, half of his jaw, and all of the flesh connecting the right side of his neck.  

Cavities, gum disease & more:

·         Chewing tobacco can lead to cavities in two ways. The first is that chew contains high amount of sugar that can lead to tooth decay. The second is that coarse particles in the chew can wear away the enamel on your teeth, making them more vulnerable to cavities.

·         As for your gums, the sugar and irritants in chewing tobacco can actually cause your gums to pull away from your teeth in the areas of your mouth where you place your chew. This can lead to gingivitis, which can lead to periodontitis and tooth loss.

·         Chewing tobacco can also stain your teeth and cause bad breath.

·         Bone loss around the roots of the teeth can result from using chew.

Your heart: Smokeless tobacco products increase your heart rate and blood pressure. There is evidence that long-term use of these products increases your risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke.

Leukoplakia: There is also a risk of developing leukoplakia inside your mouth, usually where the chew is most often placed. These small white patches are precancerous mouth lesions. Precancerous means that one day they could become cancerous. These lesions will usually go away within a few months once you stop using chewing tobacco.

What to do if you are addicted to chewing tobacco?

If you find you are unable to stop using chewing tobacco on your own, TeenHealthFX definitely recommends speaking to your doctor about it. There are various products, medications, and useful strategies that your doctor can talk to you about. You can also call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (800-784-8669) for more information, or use the National Cancer Institute’s online assistance from their LiveHelp service.

For some specific guidelines of how to quit, see the American Cancer Society webpage on Smokeless Tobacco: How To Quit.


For more information on chewing tobacco, see TeensHealth article on Smokeless Tobacco.

Signed: TeenHealthFX