We were discussing teenagers, and my patient's mother shared how lucky she felt to have a teenage son who was a fine student and gifted athlete who never got into trouble. In fact, the young man not only had no bad habits, but he also tried hard to be a good role model for his teammates. His most recent efforts involved discouraging the other boys from using chewing tobacco.
While older men once were the main users of smokeless tobacco products, the addiction referral organization Teen Drug Abuse notes that young men and teenage boys now make up 92 percent of smokeless tobacco consumers. Smokeless tobacco use among boys is on the rise, with 15 percent of U.S. high school boys admitting current use. Smokeless products also tend to attract kids even before their teen years, with an average start age of 12 years for smokeless tobacco use compared to 14 years for cigarette smoking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that chewing tobacco and snuff are the two most popular smokeless tobacco products in the United States. Users typically put the tobacco between cheek and gum, suck or chew the product, and then spit out or swallow the remaining tobacco juice and saliva.
The CDC cautions that even though these tobacco products are usually not inhaled by the user, smokeless tobacco actually contains 28 known carcinogens and should never be viewed as a safe alternative to cigarettes.
Carcinogenic chemicals in smokeless tobacco include nitrosamines, which are formed during tobacco processing, along with radioactive polonium-210, an element found in tobacco fertilizer.
National Cancer Institute research shows that smokeless tobacco use causes oral, esophageal and pancreatic cancers, and has been linked to the development of precancerous white patches in the mouth (leukoplakia), gum disease and heart disease.
Experts at the NCI explain that smokeless tobacco, like all other tobacco products, contains nicotine, an addictive stimulant. Smokeless tobacco use can therefore lead to nicotine addiction and dependence. Medical studies reveal that users of smokeless tobacco products have blood nicotine levels similar to cigarette smokers, and that these blood levels linger longer in smokeless users than in smokers.
"There is no safe level of tobacco use," states the cancer institute, which urges all tobacco consumers, including smokeless tobacco users, to seek help in quitting. Counseling is available through many resources, including the NCI's Smoking Quitline at (877) 448-7848 and the website ChewFree.com.
• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.