By the HELP Committee and Havre Public Schools for the Havre Daily News
The use of spit - so-called "smokeless" - tobacco products by high school age youth in Montana and in the Havre community has steadily declined in recent years. This is certainly welcome news. However, according to studies by the National Cancer Institute and state and local agencies, spit tobacco use in Montana remains at a significantly higher rate than the national averages.
The percentage of high school kids across the county who have reported using spit tobacco is about 15 percent. In Montana, the number is about 25 percent.
The reasons for the higher numbers in Montana can perhaps be explained by certain unique social and culture elements of our state. However, the dangers of spit tobacco use are universal and cause for alarm.
There are two forms of spit tobacco: chewing tobacco and snuff. Chewing tobacco is usually sold as leaf tobacco packaged in a pouch or plug tobacco in brick form. Snuff is a finely shredded or powdered tobacco, usually sold in cans. These products are usually placed between the lower lip and the gum. As it is with smoking, nicotine is swiftly absorbed into the bloodstream. As it is with smoking, nicotine addiction ensues.
Spit tobacco contains many chemicals that can have a harmful effect on your health. Here are a few of the ingredients found in spit tobacco:
Polonium 210 (nuclear waste)
N-Nitrosamines (cancer causing agent)
Formaldehyde (embalming fluid)
Nicotine (more additive than most illegal drugs)
Cadmium (toxic, used in car batteries)
Benzene (toxic, carcinogenic)
Lead (nerve poison)
Spit tobacco is touted by the big tobacco companies as a safer alternative to smoking. This is simply not the case. The use of spit tobacco generally just moves the health problems from your lungs to your mouth.
If you use spit tobacco, here's what you might have to look forward to:
Cancer. Cancer of the mouth, including the lip, tongue and cheek, and cancer of the throat. Cancers most frequently occur at the site where tobacco is held in the mouth.
Leukoplakia. When you hold tobacco in one place in your mouth, your mouth becomes irritated by the tobacco juice. This causes a white, leathery, precancerous patch to form. These patches can be different in size, shape and appearance and are precursors to more serious conditions.
Heart disease. The constant flow of nicotine into your body causes many side effects including: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and sometimes irregular heart beats, which can lead to a greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. Nicotine in the body also causes constricted blood vessels, which can slow down reaction time and cause dizziness.
Gum and tooth disease. Spit tobacco permanently discolors teeth and causes severe bad breath. Its direct and repeated contact with the gums causes them to recede, which can cause teeth to loosen and fall out. Spit tobacco contains a lot of sugar, a flavor- enhancing agent that, when mixed with the plaque on your teeth, forms acid that eats away at tooth enamel, and causes cavities and chronic painful sores.
Social effects. The really bad breath, discolored teeth, gunk stuck in your teeth and constant spitting can have a very negative effect on your social and personal life. An even more serious effect of spit tobacco is oral cancer, and the surgery for this could lead to removal of parts of your face, tongue, cheek or lip.
Spit tobacco users must be aware of the early warning signs of health problems. Check your mouth often, looking closely at the places where you hold the tobacco. Consult a doctor immediately if you observe any of the following:
a sore that bleeds easily and doesn't heal;
a lump or thickening anywhere in your mouth or neck;
soreness or swelling that doesn't go away;
a red or white patch that doesn't go away;
trouble chewing, swallowing, or moving your tongue or jaw.
The best way to prevent experiencing these harms is simple: Never begin using spit tobacco. If you are currently a regularly spit tobacco user, the best defense to health problems is more complicated: Quit. The good news is, that while difficult, it can be done successfully, and help is available. Consider these suggestions to aid in quitting:
Think of reasons why you want to quit - for example, you don't want to risk death or facial deformity from cancer; you don't want people to be offended by your bad breath, stained teeth or constant need to spit globs of tobacco-saturated saliva; you want to begin leading a healthier life.
Pick a date to quit and then dispose of all tobacco products.
Ask your friends, family, teachers and coaches to help you by giving you support and encouragement. Refrain from being in the company of those who still use. Ask a friend to quit with you.
See your doctor about nicotine replacement therapy and other cessation programs.
Find alternatives to spit tobacco such as sugarless gum or tobacco-free substitutes.
Find activities to keep your mind off spit tobacco. Exercise can often relieve stress and tension caused by quitting.
Set realistic goals that will work for you.
Reward yourself by saving the money you would otherwise spend on spit tobacco products.
For more information, contact the Montana Tobacco Quit Line toll-free at (866) 485-7848, or the HELP Committee at 265-6206.