WV Division of Tobacco Prevention
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WV Division of Tobacco Prevention

Smokeless Tobacco

Smokeless tobacco includes products such as chewing (spit) tobacco, moist snuff, snus (a “spitless,” moist powder tobacco, often in a pouch), and other tobacco-containing products that are not smoked.

Some smokeless tobacco products might expose people to lower levels of harmful chemicals than tobacco smoke, but that doesn’t mean these products are a safe alternative to smoking.

What are the health risks of smokeless tobacco?*

Using any kind of smokeless tobacco can expose you to health risks. These products contain cancer-causing chemicals, as well as addictive nicotine.

No form of smokeless tobacco is a safe substitute for cigarettes. Still, tobacco companies often market these products as alternatives to smoking in places where smoking isn’t allowed.

Smokeless tobacco causes cancer:

Overall, people who dip or chew get about the same amount of nicotine as people who smoke regularly. They are also exposed to more than 25 chemicals that are known to cause cancer. The most harmful cancer-causing substances in smokeless tobacco are tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). TSNA levels vary by product, but the higher the level the greater the cancer risk.

Cancers linked to the use of smokeless tobacco include:

The risk of cancer with newer types of smokeless tobacco products isn’t quite as clear, mainly because they haven’t been studied as well as chewing tobacco and snuff. They still contain potentially harmful chemicals that might increase a person’s risk of cancer, although the amounts can vary by product.

Smokeless tobacco causes other health problems

Mouth and tooth problems

Many studies have shown high rates of leukoplakia in the mouth where users place their chew or dip. Leukoplakia is a gray-white patch in the mouth that can become cancer. These patches can’t be scraped off.

They’re sometimes called sores but are usually painless. The longer a person uses oral tobacco, the more likely they are to have leukoplakia. Stopping tobacco might help clear up the spot, but treatment may be needed if there are signs of early cancer.

Tobacco stains teeth and causes bad breath. It can also irritate or destroy gum tissue. Many regular smokeless tobacco users have receding or swollen gums, tooth decay and cavities (from the high sugar content in the tobacco), scratching and wearing down (abrasion) of teeth, and bone loss around the teeth. The surface of the tooth root may be exposed where gums have shrunken. All of these can cause teeth to loosen and fall out.

Other health problems

Other harmful health effects of smokeless tobacco include:

  • Increased risk of dying from heart disease and stroke
  • Increased risk of early delivery and stillbirth when used during pregnancy

Smokeless tobacco can lead to nicotine poisoning and even death in children who mistake it for candy.

All smokeless tobacco contains nicotine, which can lead to addiction. In teens, using nicotine can also harm the parts of the brain that control attention, learning, mood, and impulse control. It may also increase the risk for future addiction to other drugs.

Dissolvable tobacco is of special concern because at this time little is known about the health effects of these products. Still, it’s clear that they are another way for people, especially youth, to experiment with tobacco products and become addicted to nicotine. Because they are so tempting, they can easily poison children and pets.

The risk of cancer with newer types of smokeless tobacco products isn’t quite as clear, mainly because they haven’t been studied as well as chewing tobacco and snuff. They still contain potentially harmful chemicals that might increase a person’s risk of cancer, although the amounts can vary by product.

Little is known about the health effects of these products. Still, it’s clear that they are another way for people, especially youth, to experiment with tobacco products and become addicted to nicotine. Because they are so tempting, they can easily poison children and pets. *Courtesy of the American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org

WVDTP has been promoting smokeless tobacco cessation for many years. A smokeless tobacco specific brochure is available by clicking here and here. For a quantity of these brochures please contact WVDTP.

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