Know the Dangers: Mouth Problems

Some problems caused by smokeless tobacco may seem minor, like tooth stains, bad breath, and losing your taste for food.

But chewing tobacco and snuff can cause serious damage to your teeth and gums. The sugar in smokeless tobacco can cause severe tooth decay. The grit in chew and dip can wear down the enamel surfaces of the teeth. And the strong chemicals in chewing tobacco and snuff can cause the gums to pull away from the teeth in the place where the tobacco is held. Gum damage is very hard to repair, and it can lead to tooth loss.

The most serious problems are white patches and sores inside the mouth. Leathery white patches develop where the tobacco comes in contact with the gum and cheek. These patches, called leukoplakia (looko-play-kia), are caused by the cancer-causing chemicals in the tobacco. They can turn into mouth cancer over time. Red sores also may be cancer warning signs. These problems are not rare. In a recent study, white patches were found in almost half (46%) of over 400 major and minor league players who used dip or chew. They were most common in snuff dippers--white patches were found in 69% of the players who used two to three cans of dip per week.

Warning Signals: Check your teeth and gums for damage and pull your lips back and look closely at where you hold the tobacco. If you see a white patch, red sore that doesn't heal, or a lump on your cheek, tongue, or gums, see your doctor or dentist right away. A special test (biopsy) may be needed to see if it is precancerous. If a cancer does develop, it must be treated right away. Even if you don't see a problem now, have your mouth checked by a doctor or dentist every 3 months.

Mouth Cancer

The toxic chemicals in chewing tobacco and snuff can cause mouth, head and neck cancer over time. Long-term snuff dippers are 50 times more likely to get mouth cancer. But long-term users are not the only ones at risk. Sean Marsee, an Oklahoma track star, started using snuff at age 12. He died of mouth cancer at the age of 19. Mouth cancer is very hard to cure. Some forms spread rapidly to other parts of the body. This is why you should quit now, while you're ahead of the game.

"I dipped Skoal for only ó years. And right behind where I put it, I had a growth that the surgeon thought was benign. It turned out to be cancer. I'm lucky they got it in time." (Jack Davis, former minor league pitcher)

Former Cubs first-baseman Steve Fox also used chewing tobacco for ó years. He developed white patches in his mouth and a sore on his tongue that didn't heal. The doctors told him he had mouth cancer. Half of his tongue was removed, and he had to learn to talk all over again:

"Now, when I see a younger player with the can in his back pocket, I want to go up and grab him and say 'Why are you doing this?' I want to tell him that he can live without it, that there's no way it's worth the price he might have to pay, that no one should ever have to go through what I went through."