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Smokeless tobacco

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

What is smokeless tobacco?

Chewing tobacco and snuff are the two main types of smokeless tobacco. Chewing tobacco usually comes in leaves or plugs, which you put in your cheek pouches and then chew. Snuff, which is less common in the UK these days, is finely ground tobacco that you sniff up your nose. Snus is a form of snuff popular in Scandinavia and usually comes in small pouches like tea bags which are put between your gums and cheeks.

Many people believe that smokeless tobacco is not dangerous, but that’s not true. Smokeless tobacco has many bad side effects and serious health risks, including cancer and even death.

Is smokeless tobacco addictive?

Yes. Like cigarettes, chewing tobacco and snuff contain nicotine - a highly addictive drug. Because the nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream from the mouth or nose, it takes longer to reach the brain. Smokeless tobacco users do not feel the effects of the nicotine as quickly as cigarette users do, but about the same amount of nicotine enters their bloodstream.

Nicotine works by making the brain release adrenaline-like compounds (such as noradrenaline). These excitatory neurotransmitters get your adrenaline pumping. Many people enjoy this feeling but not the feeling that comes after it. After the nicotine is gone, and the brain stops releasing the positive neurotransmitters, smokeless tobacco users feel tired, depressed and down.

Nicotine also causes the brain to release a chemical called dopamine. Other very addictive drugs such as cocaine also make the brain release dopamine. Even though dopamine makes you feel good, drugs that make the brain release it are highly addictive.

What are the health risks of smokeless tobacco?

The most noticeable side effects are stained teeth and poor dental health. Although these are not usually life threatening, dental problems are painful, expensive and may affect your social life. Chewing tobacco and snuff can turn your teeth yellowish-brown and give you bad breath. They can also make your gums bleed and create sores on your gums and inside your mouth that refuse to heal.

The most serious health risk associated with smokeless tobacco is cancer. Smokeless tobacco products contain at least 28 cancer-causing chemicals. Over time, these chemicals increase your risk of cancers in the mouth and throat. If you use smokeless tobacco, talk to your dentist, or GP, about checking for any precancerous lesions.

Despite being the most preventable cause of death in the UK, tobacco use is estimated to be responsible for more than a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK, or over 40,000 deaths in 2010, according to Cancer Research UK. If you have thought about using smokeless tobacco or any other tobacco product, think again. Any tobacco use is dangerous and unhealthy, especially for teenagers.

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