Summer is here and many people will attend baseball games or other outdoor sporting events with family and friends. While smoking is banned at many outdoor sporting events, smokeless tobacco (chewing or spit tobacco) is often accepted. In fact, many athletes use smokeless tobacco. Use by athletes and acceptance of smokeless tobacco in non-smoking areas contribute to the belief that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative to smoking. It is not.
Statistics on smokeless tobacco
It is estimated that 24 million Americans use smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco sales have increased more than 30 percent in the past 10 years, while cigarettes, cigars, and pipe tobacco usage has declined or shown only modest increases in usage. Industry analysts predict smokeless tobacco usage could double over the next few years.
Dr. Daniel Kenady, professor of surgery, University of Kentucky College of Medicine, says, “The most important thing people need to know is that smokeless tobacco is not a safe form of tobacco—it causes a number of problems and can result in oral cancer (such as the gum, cheek, lip, mouth, tongue, and throat).”
According to Kenady, people who use smokeless tobacco have an increased risk of developing cancer of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. Repetitive use of smokeless tobacco can cause a precancerous condition in the mouth called leukoplakia. Occurring on the lips or inside the cheek, leukoplakia is a white, leathery-appearing patch, which results in cancer diagnosis in 3 to 5 percent of cases.
The risk of cancer in soft oral tissues is almost 50 times greater in long-term users than non-users. About 87 percent of these tumors are attributable to the smokeless tobacco called snuff. Oral cancer is the sixth most common cancer in men and the 14th most common cancer in women. It occurs most often in people over the age of 40 but can develop at any age.
“In the cases of oral cancer I have seen this year, nine out of 10 were chewers,” says Kenady.
Other dangers to watch for
Other dangers from smokeless tobacco use include: gum recession that results in exposed roots and increased sensitivity to heat and cold; drifting and tooth loss from damage to gum tissue; abrasion to tooth enamel due to high levels of sand and grit contained in smokeless tobacco; tooth discoloration and bad breath; tooth decay caused by sugar added to smokeless tobacco to improve its taste; and possible decreased athletic performance due to constriction of blood vessels caused by nicotine use.
Kenady suggests that if you use smokeless tobacco, you should try to stop immediately, and you should see your dentist and doctor regularly. “Often, people don’t pay attention to what is going on in their mouth, or they discount discomfort as something insignificant or passing, when they should look into it,” says Kenady.
SIGNS OF ORAL CANCER
• Sores that fail to heal and bleed easily
• A lump or thickening
• Whitish patches
• Difficulty in chewing or swallowing food
• Sensation of something in the throat
If you notice any of these signs, you should consult your doctor or dentist immediately.