How harmful is chewing tobacco?

How harmful is chewing tobacco?

It’s long been a familiar sight on major league baseball fields – players with their cheeks bulging from a wad of chewing tobacco.

But in the wake of the recent death of Hall of Fame baseball player Tony Gwynn from salivary gland cancer, several baseball players say they’re swearing off the “chaw.”

While Gwynn’s rare form of cancer has not been medically linked to smokeless tobacco (in a 2010 interview with ESPN, Mr. Gwynn attributed the cancer to chewing tobacco), the Centers for Disease Control says the substance contains 28 different carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents.

“Smokeless tobacco is a significant health risk and is not a safe substitute for smoking cigarettes,” according to the CDC. “Smokeless tobacco use can lead to nicotine addiction and dependence. Adolescents who use smokeless tobacco are more likely to become cigarette smokers.”

Dr. Aijaz Alvi, an otolaryngologist (ear/nose/throat specialist) on staff at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill. and Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, says when someone uses smokeless tobacco, “they’re applying carcinogens directly to the lining of the mouth.”

Symptoms from use typically start with a burning sensation in the area where the tobacco is placed, followed by discoloration of the gums or cheeks.

“Sometimes the patient will go to a dentist first, thinking they have a dental problem, but actually the lining is starting to get irritated or precancerous,” Dr. Alvi says.

With continued use, the irritation grows worse and turns red before the site finally turns cancerous and can metastasize.

“Patients can present with a lump in the neck, on the same side as the irritation, which means the cancer has spread,” he says.

Dr. Alvi says chewing tobacco is “just as dangerous as smoking. If you want to be scared away from using smokeless tobacco, look at someone who has had surgery for oral cancer. It’s major surgery that affects the way you look: your jaw – which creates the contour of your face – and your teeth.”

“Don’t start using chewing tobacco, but if you are using it, quit immediately,” Dr. Alvi advises, noting that, just as with cigarette smoking, the health risks go down after discontinuation.

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  1. Lisa Parro

    I saw a group of guys dipping recently while at a small beach in Wisconsin and it made me sick. So gross.

  2. Will never understand the appeal of this awful habit!

  3. As someone who enjoys a pipe and cigar from time to time, I really don’t understand chewing tobacco’s appeal. I had done it once in college and that was enough to realize that it’s not my type of vice. The little packets that you put by the lip actually create abrasions or small cuts (no bleeding/very small) to help the absorption of the nicotine into the body. The next morning the lips are all aggravated and puffy. There are better tasting tobaccos and better sources of nicotine so I, again, don’t see any other reason to do this other than believing you are fulfilling some masculine stereotype from the 1800’s. And that is also not my cup-o-tea.

  4. Lynn Hutley

    Big League Chew – blowing a giant bubble in the dugout looks way cooler than constantly spitting if you ask me.

  5. Sarah Fitzpatrick July 14, 2014 at 1:22 pm · Reply

    Yuck! It has always worried me that my younger brother, who plays baseball for numerous teams throughout the year, will pick up this horrible habit. Hopefully he continues to avoid it as he goes into college!

  6. Gross. What a horrible habit.

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care sites, also including freelance or intern writers.