Think Smokeless Tobacco Eliminates Your Cancer Risk? Think Again


Many people believe that smokeless tobacco—such as in the form of chewing tobacco or “snuff”—is less harmful to one’s health than cigarettes. (In 2011, a Kentucky oncologist was reportedly encouraging smokers to take up smokeless tobacco in favor of cigarettes and claiming that tobacco is less harmful when not smoked.) The link between cigarette smoke and lung cancer is well documented, but is it true that smokeless tobacco is safe?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) at the National Institutes of Health puts it succinctly on its website: “There is no safe form of tobacco.” All kinds of tobacco, whether smoked or not, contain the addictive substance nicotine, and in addition, smokeless tobacco has been found to contain twenty-eight substances that cause cancer. What kind of cancer? Whereas cigarette smoking is associated with lung cancer, the NCI reports that “Smokeless tobacco causes oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer . . . [and] may also cause heart disease, gum disease, and oral lesions other than cancer, such as leukoplakia (precancerous white patches in the mouth).” Each year about 40,000 new cases of oral cancer are reported in the United States, and experts believe that as many of 90 percent of those new cases are caused by chewing tobacco and snuff.

When you consider how smokeless tobacco works, these figures may not surprise you. Chewing tobacco is placed in the mouth between the gum and the cheek and either chewed or held in place; while it is in the mouth, nicotine is absorbed through the tissues of the mouth and enters the bloodstream, where it remains for more time than nicotine in a smoker’s body.

If not detected and treated early, oral cancer can spread. Tooth discoloration; symptoms of gum disease; and sores on the tongue, the floor of the mouth, or the lips, gums, or lining of the mouth should be regarded as warning signs and evaluated immediately by an oral health professional. The experts at The Schiff Dental Group can help. Learn more information about their services and request an appointment here.