Most of us know smoking tobacco can cause cancer but what if you chew it instead?
Short Answer: Still terrible, don’t do it, unless you just love infections.
It used to be the case that if you were trying to quit smoking cigarettes, some health advocates would recommend that you replace the habit with smokeless tobacco, since it removes the whole cancer-y combustion part of the equation and supposedly causes less cancer. But there’s tons of evidence that it does, in fact, cause cancer and hey, a study came out this year that not only points to a cancer risk from smokeless tobacco but also the very real risk of a horrible bacterial infection. So those health advocates might want to rethink their chosen careers.
The big problem with smokeless tobacco is how it is consumed. You’ve probably seen people using it; they’ll often look like they have a big old lump in their cheek. That lump is tobacco and users generally hold it against their gum line for a long periods of time, as the nicotine is absorbed. But you are not really supposed to hold anything in your mouth for that long and the tissues inside of your mouth, called mucous membranes, aren’t as strong as they are on the outside of your body.
The mucous membranes “figuratively” open the door for all sorts of nasty cancerous chemicals and bacterial infections. But first it makes sense to understand the problem with tobacco in general.
Most of us know that smoking tobacco is one of the biggest causes of lung cancer by far and does so by altering your body’s DNA. A number of chemicals found in cigarettes are specifically labelled as culprits in DNA damage; including benzene, polonium-210, benzo[a]pyrene and nitrosamines. And most of them show up before anything is even burned, aka combusted. Combustion is a chemical reacting and leaves lots of little byproducts, a number of which are known carcinogens. Whether it’s burning meat on a grill or lighting up a cigarette, combustion is generally known to produce these carcinogens.
However, removing the smoke part only really addresses a small part of the cancer-causing problem with tobacco. Smokeless tobacco, which can take on the form of snuffs, snus, dissolvable or chewable tobacco still contains stuff like nitrosamine, which is considered one of the most reliable cancer causing agents in tobacco and comes from a chemical reaction nicotine undergoes when it oxidizes during drying, also called “curing”.
In fact, smokeless tobacco is well known to cause cancers of the mouth and throat. Even Babe Ruth died from cancer of the upper throat, very likely due to chewing tobacco. No one is immune. Speaking of immune, smokeless tobacco isn’t just a cancer risk.
A paper published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology in August of 2016 showed a link between opportunistic infections and smokeless tobacco. It says that there’s a type of bacteria group called “Bacillus” that can live in smokeless tobacco and infect your mouth.
A different study in Clinical and Diagnostic Laboratory Immunology found five species of bacillus in chewing tobacco sold in the US – so the bacteria is already there when you buy it.
Some of these species are known to cause vomiting, diarrhea and even emit a toxin that can make you very sick. And even worse, other forms of this bacteria can produce the exact kinds of nitrosamines we mentioned earlier that are known to cause cancer.
The problem is that smokeless tobacco is a prime transporter for opportunistic infections, which describes an infection that generally only happens when there is a prolonged opportunity. As we mentioned earlier, in order to get nicotine into your body from your mouth without swallowing it, the piece of tobacco is held against your mucous membranes in order to flow right through them. This creates the perfect opportunity for bacteria to jump into your bloodstream right alongside the nicotine and next thing you know, you’ve got toxin-producing Bacillus running rampant.
Look, it’s 2017 and the evidence is clear as day, tobacco is generally bad news and the more we learn about it, the worse it is. So do yourself a favor and spit it out.
But hey, you clicked the article to see that nasty infection on the featured image, am I right? Here is the original full-size image and yes, it was caused by chewing tobacco:
Now go and enjoy your lunch.