At first, chewing and spitting may seem cool. Some professional athletes do it. Just trying it may seem harmless. Young people do it, hanging out together. You’re part of the group, use maybe a tin every couple of weeks. No big deal.
The thing is, the more you do, the more you want. Like cigarettes. But Dan, Cory, Ryan, Chris, and Sam think smokeless tobacco is addicting. They started using it between ages 12 and 16.
“At first you’re addicted to the habit,” Dan says. “You know, passing the tin. After it gets into your system enough, it’s the nicotine you’re craving.”
In either case, you end up wanting more. “Usually about 45 minutes before I’d go to sleep I’d put one in,” Ryan says, describing his bedtime use of dip. “Or I’d lie in bed thinking about it. I’ve called up a kid who lives down the street from me at 11:30, quarter to 12. ‘Come meet me. I’ve got to get a dip from you,’ I’d say. He’d done the same with me.”
Chris noticed that chewing tobacco started to affect his performance on the ball field. It was always on his mind. “It starts affecting your mind,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get home and have a dip.’ ”
The National Cancer Institute reports that an average dip held in the mouth for 30 minutes has the nicotine of four cigarettes. People who use two tins a week get as much nicotine as people smoking a pack and a half a day.
“That’s pretty much the ‘crack’ of nicotine,” Ryan says.
More dangerous consequences of dip are the visible ones. “It causes mouth cancer,” says Dr. Greg Connolly, formerly the head of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health tobacco control program. “When we encourage youngsters to move from cigarette smoking to using dip, we’re just moving cancer from the lung to the mouth. It’s like jumping from the seventh floor versus the tenth.”
The culprits are the cancer-causing agents in smokeless tobacco.
“That really tears apart your mouth,” Ryan says. “You get these little white sores all around your mouth.”
Soreness first, then the loss of chunks of flesh. “Once in a while I’d spit into my cup and there would be blood,” Sam says. “Sometimes I’d pull dead skin out. It’s really disgusting. Actually, it scares you. Probably the worse thing about it is, you lose control.”
Some smokeless tobacco is packaged like little tea bags. It comes in mint and fruit flavors. Young people often start with these lower nicotine products, then upgrade to harder stuff. The targeting of young people by tobacco companies seems obvious to Dr. Connolly.
“They are out to get them with starter products, with a low nicotine delivery, that make taking up dip like drinking a milkshake,” he says, “with the intent of moving youngsters up to higher nicotine products over time.”
Companies place candy-like starter samples in magazine ads or send them to kids by mail. “They know their kids,” Corey says. “Whatever they see, they probably want to try it.”
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