What is spit or smokeless tobacco?
There are 2 basic forms of smokeless tobacco: chewing tobacco and snuff.
Chewing tobacco comes as long strands of loose leaves, plugs, or twists of tobacco. Pieces, commonly called plugs, wads, or chew, are chewed or placed between the cheek and gum or teeth. The nicotine in the piece of chewing tobacco is absorbed through the mouth tissues. The user spits out the brown saliva that has soaked through the tobacco.
Snuff is finely ground tobacco packaged in cans or pouches. It’s sold as dry or moist.
Moist snuff is used by placing a pinch, dip, lipper, or quid, between the lower lip or cheek and gum. The nicotine in the snuff is absorbed through the tissues of the mouth. Moist snuff is also available in small, teabag-like pouches or sachets that can be placed between the cheek and gum. These are designed to be both “smoke-free” and “spit-free” and are marketed as a discreet way to use tobacco.
Dry snuff is sold in a powdered form and is used by sniffing or inhaling the powder up the nose.
Snus (sounds like snoose) is a finely ground form of moist snuff that first came from Sweden and Norway. It’s most commonly packaged in small pouches, but can also be used like loose moist snuff. Some people believe that snus is a safe tobacco to use. Because it’s steam-heated rather than fermented (like American snuff and other forms of spitless tobacco), Swedish snus has fewer tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs) that are known to cause cancer. But there are other carcinogens in snus besides TSNAs.
It’s true that snus users in Sweden have lower rates of some types of cancer than Swedish smokers. But snus users may have a higher risk of cancer of the pancreas than non-users. They also get sores or spots in the mouth (lesions) where the snus is held. It appears that snus users may have mouth cancer more often than non-users, as well as higher risk for cancers of the esophagus, stomach, and pancreas, but more studies need to be done to confirm these links. (See the section called “What are the risks of using smokeless tobacco?” for more on this.)
It’s also important to know that Swedish snus is processed in a special way that limits some of its toxins, and it has very specific manufacturing standards. The Swedish makers also provide consumer information about the product. American-made snus doesn’t have this kind of regulation or requirements on its processing or labeling.
Since US tobacco sellers are not required to list what’s in their products, it’s hard to know how the US versions of snus might compare to the Swedish versions without more research. The studies done so far show that American versions of snus contain varying amounts of TSNAs depending on brand and region of the United States. There’s no requirement as to levels of TSNAs in American snus, nor is there a requirement for labeling this carcinogen.
Snus contains tobacco, so it’s not helpful if you want to quit; it’s as addictive as any other form of tobacco. American snus has not been proven safer than the more common forms of smokeless tobacco. To date, snus has not been tested in controlled clinical trials.
Nicotine levels in American snus also vary, which makes it hard to know how much nicotine replacement you might need if you try to quit. Since snus is still new in the United States, it’s uncertain what other health problems it might cause.
Tobacco companies have also created dissolvable forms of smokeless tobacco. These are available as sweet, candy-like tobacco lozenges, orbs, or pellets; strips (like meltaway breath strips); and toothpick-sized sticks. All contain tobacco and nicotine. Depending on the type, they are designed to be held in the mouth, chewed, or sucked until they dissolve. The juices are swallowed.
Some of these new smokeless tobacco products are mint-flavored and look a lot like candy. Because they are so tempting, they can easily poison children and pets.
Who uses smokeless tobacco?
Data collected in 2012 showed that about 3.5% of people aged 12 and older in the US used smokeless tobacco – that’s about 9 million people. Use of smokeless tobacco was higher in younger age groups, with more than 5.5% of people aged 18 to 25 saying they were current users.
About 1 million people age 12 and older started using smokeless tobacco in the year before the survey. About 46% of the new users were younger than 18 when they first used it.
This data is supported by the CDC’s 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which found that use of smokeless tobacco among high school kids is even higher than for young adults. They found that about 11% of male high school students and 1.5% of female high school students had used smokeless tobacco in the month before the survey. Another 4% of males and 1% of females had used snus, while 1% of males and 0.6% of females had used dissolvable tobacco.
The CDC Youth Tobacco Survey looked at younger children, too. In their 2012 survey, just over 2% of middle school boys and 1% of middle school girls reported using smokeless tobacco at least once in the 30 days before the survey. Another 1% of boys and 0.6% of girls used snus, while 0.7% of boys and 0.4% of girls used dissolvable tobacco.
Although flavorings are not allowed in cigarettes, the tobacco industry offers sweeteners and flavorings in smokeless tobacco. It can taste more like candy with flavors such as vanilla, mint, and fruit, which makes it more appealing to young people.
Certain factors seem to be linked to whether young people will use tobacco. They include:
- Examples set by parents
- Peer pressure
- Local lifestyles and fashions
- General attitudes toward authority
- Economic conditions
- Examples set by teachers and school staff
- Presence of gangs
- Use of illegal drugs and alcohol
Tobacco company advertising and exposure can influence youth, too. In 2003, more than 1 in 3 major league baseball players used smokeless tobacco, mainly moist snuff, and many still do today. Athletes are a large marketing source for smokeless tobacco, and are often seen on TV using it during a game. As role models, they can influence youth to be more open to and accepting of smokeless tobacco.
The effect of smoking bans
State-enforced smoking bans are a more recent influence on the use of smokeless tobacco. In response to these bans, tobacco companies have been marketing smokeless tobacco products more heavily. They advertise smokeless tobacco products as alternatives to cigarettes in places where smoking is not allowed. When smokers use these products instead of trying to quit tobacco, they continue to support the tobacco industry.
New studies seem to show that marketing efforts are succeeding in keeping people hooked on smoking while they are using smokeless tobacco, especially young adults. The use of cigarettes or other forms of smoked tobacco (such as cigars, clove cigarettes, or hookahs) along with smokeless tobacco is often called dual use. The health risks posed by dual use may be higher than either alone, especially for heart disease.
Smokers who put off quitting by using smokeless tobacco to get a nicotine fix while in smoke-free settings do not decrease their lung cancer risk. Lung cancer risk is affected most by how long a person smokes, and these people are still using tobacco and smoking cigarettes. Research has also shown that people who use smokeless tobacco and smoke cigarettes often find it harder to quit tobacco than those who just smoke.
See the section called “Marketing smokeless tobacco products” for more on smoking bans and the response of tobacco companies.
How is smokeless or spit tobacco different from smoking?
The route is different, but the nicotine addiction is the same.
Nicotine in smokeless tobacco products absorbs from the mouth or nose along with other compounds in the tobacco.
Cigarettes, pipes, and cigars burn the tobacco, and the nicotine from the smoke gets into the body through the mouth, nose, and lungs along with other particles generated by combustion. Burning tobacco also sends out secondhand smoke, which other people and the smoker breathe in as it lingers in the air and settles on surfaces.
All forms of tobacco and nicotine can harm or kill children and pets if accidentally or otherwise ingested.
What kinds of illness are caused by oral or smokeless tobacco
Harmful health effects of smokeless tobacco include:
- Mouth, tongue, cheek, gum, and throat cancer
- Cancer in the esophagus (the swallowing tube that goes from your mouth to your stomach)
- Stomach cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Possible increase in risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and stroke
- Addiction to nicotine (which can lead to smoking)
- Leukoplakia (white sores in the mouth that can become cancer)
- Receding gums (gums slowly shrink from around the teeth) and gum disease (gingivitis)
- Bone loss around the roots of the teeth
- Abrasion (scratching and wearing down) of teeth
- Cavities and tooth decay
- Tooth loss
- Stained and discolored teeth
- Bad breath
Leukoplakia is a white patch in the mouth that can become cancer. These are sometimes called sores but they are usually painless. Many studies have shown high rates of leukoplakia at the place in the mouth where users place their chew or dip. One study found that nearly 3 out of 4 daily users of moist snuff and chewing tobacco had non-cancerous or pre-cancerous lesions (sores) in the mouth. The longer a person uses oral tobacco, the more likely they are to have leukoplakia.
Tobacco can irritate or destroy gum tissue. Many regular smokeless tobacco users have receding gums, gum disease, tooth decay (from the high sugar content in the tobacco), and bone loss around the teeth. The surface of the tooth root may be exposed where gums have shrunken. All this can cause teeth to loosen and fall out.
Smokeless tobacco may also play a role in heart disease and high blood pressure. Results from a large American Cancer Society study showed that men who switched from cigarettes to snuff or chewing tobacco had higher death rates from heart disease, stroke, cancer of the mouth and lung, and all causes of death combined than former smokers who stopped using all tobacco products. It’s unclear whether the heart disease was caused by the smokeless tobacco products in this study.
Later studies have found mixed results. Some show a slight increase in heart disease among users of smokeless tobacco. One Indian study that looked at countries where smokeless tobacco use is high found that the risks of heart attack and sudden death were higher in those who used smokeless tobacco, and even higher in those who both chewed and smoked. They also found more hypertension (high blood pressure) and clotting problems in those who used smokeless tobacco. Studies in Sweden found no increase in heart attacks, but snuff (snus) users were more likely to die from their heart attacks than non-users. Other Swedish studies have found that high blood pressure and heart failure are seen at higher rates in snus users compared to peers who do not use tobacco.
More US studies are needed to identify heart disease related to use of smokeless tobacco.
The snuff and chewing tobacco products most widely used in the United States have very high levels of cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) called tobacco-specific nitrosamines. These carcinogens cause lung cancer in animals, even when injected into their blood. There are other cancer-causing agents in smokeless tobacco, too, such as benzo[a]pyrene and other polycyclic aromatic carcinogens. These carcinogens may be why several types of cancer are linked to use of smokeless tobacco (see above list).
How do the risks of using smokeless tobacco compare with cigarette smoking?
Smokeless tobacco products are less lethal than cigarettes: On average, they kill fewer people than cigarettes. But smokeless tobacco hurts and kills people all the same. Even though they are marketed as a less harmful alternative to smoking, smokeless products can be deadly. And they have not been proven to help smokers quit.
Smokers who delay quitting by using smokeless products between cigarettes greatly increase their risk of lung cancer. They also set themselves up for new health problems caused by smokeless tobacco.
Marketing smokeless tobacco products
Tobacco companies have responded to the laws that ban smoking in public places by selling smokeless products that can be used in no-smoking settings. Cigarette companies are increasingly producing and marketing smokeless tobacco products to keep their customers using their brand. They use ad slogans such as “Anytime. Anywhere” and “No Smoking, No Problem” to target smokers who crave nicotine while they are in smoke-free places. Free samples and coupons are often offered to encourage people to try these new products. But without smokeless products, these smokers might be motivated to quit smoking completely.
The tobacco industry is also promoting the idea that switching to smokeless products is a good way to quit smoking. These claims are implied rather than stated outright, to avoid having these products regulated as drugs.
There’s no proof that smokeless tobacco products can actually help smokers quit. But there are proven treatments for tobacco addiction, such as nicotine replacement products, prescription drugs, and behavioral therapies. These standard treatments have been carefully tested and have been proven to help people quit smoking.
Laws that affect tobacco marketing
The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act went into effect in October 2009. This law gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) power to regulate tobacco products in the US. One of the goals of the law is to restrict the marketing and advertising of tobacco products – including smokeless tobacco products. Colorful ads and store displays are no longer permitted. Only black and white text ads are allowed. Since 2010, all outdoor tobacco ads within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds have been illegal.
Under the law, new smokeless tobacco and other products claiming to have lower health risks must be approved by the FDA. Such claims are only allowed if makers can show that the product would not encourage many non-smokers or would-be quitters to try them, rather than not using tobacco at all.
The number of tobacco brand websites is increasing. The Internet gives tobacco companies an easy, and often less publicly visible, means to target ads – especially to the largest group of Internet users – young adults and youth.
At present, there seems to be nothing to stop users of smokeless tobacco from posting videos online showing or describing the use of “dip” tobacco by young people or teens. Studies have found dozens of such videos readily available. Most of the videos reviewed were pro-tobacco. Many of these videos were watched thousands of times, with no age restrictions. In one study, more than 1 in 5 videos were created by professionals or professional groups.
Another way tobacco companies try to raise visibility of their products is through social networking sites. People can become “friends” or “followers” of their pages and get even more exposure to their products.
The Internet is a new tobacco marketing frontier that policy makers will have to follow and study. Whether and how it affects the use of smokeless tobacco still needs to be clarified.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
Here is more information you might find helpful. You also can order free copies of most of our documents from our toll-free number, 1-800-227-2345, or read them on our website, www.cancer.org.
If you or someone you care about is trying to quit dip or chew
For more information on the health effects of tobacco
Cold Hard facts About Dip (pamphlet)
Questions About Smoking, Tobacco, and Health (also in Spanish)
Child and Teen Tobacco Use (also in Spanish)
Tobacco and the LGBT Community (pamphlet)
National organizations and websites*
Along with the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:
Kill the Can
Online information and support for those committed to quitting smokeless tobacco
Nicotine Anonymous (NicA)
Toll-free number: 1-877-879-6422 (1-877-TRY-NICA)
For free information on their 12-step program, meeting schedules, print materials, or information on how to start a group in your area
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Office on Smoking and Health
Toll-free number: 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO)
Free quit support line: 1-800-784-8669 (1-800-QUIT-NOW)
Free information on tobacco, quitting, and health; phone hotline for people who want to quit
National Cancer Institute
Toll-free number: 1-800-422-6237 (1-800-4-CANCER) for cancer information
Toll-free tobacco quit line: 1-877-448-7848 (1-877-44U-QUIT)
Direct tobacco website: www.smokefree.gov
Quitting information, quit guide, and counseling is offered, as well as state telephone-based quit programs; cessation apps can be found at http://smokefree.gov/apps
No matter who you are, we can help. Contact us anytime, day or night, for information and support. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.
American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2013. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2013.
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Last Revised: 12/03/2013