When it comes to talk about tobacco use, cigarettes and their dangers are typically at the forefront of the conversation. While cigarettes hog the limelight, college students find a different way to get their nicotine fix: smokeless tobacco.
Freshman Karl Tvedte said he started using smokeless tobacco his senior year of high school and hasn’t thought twice about it despite the stigma attatched to the habit.
“I like chewing … I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed by it,” Tvdete said. “I actually think there’s more of a stigma with smoking cigarettes.”
Among college graduates aged 18 to 25, the use of smokeless tobacco increased from 2.9 percent in 2007 to 4.3 percent in 2008, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Sophomore Jon Curtis, who uses chewing tobacco, believes people use smokeless tobacco for various reasons.
“The appeal is the buzz. It’s relaxing [and] takes away stress,” he said. “It’s sort of a subtle type of substance; not so socially unacceptable, and much easier to go unnoticed. [It] doesn’t stink up your clothes, and doesn’t kill your lungs.”
Chewing is one of the oldest ways to consume tobacco and for decades it has been prevalent in sports culture, most notably baseball. Users usually place ground-up tobacco between the cheek and gum, chewing and sucking enough for the nicotine to be absorbed through the mouth into the blood stream.
According to the Tobacco Technical Assistance Consortium Web site, smokeless tobacco, or “chew” is very potent and one “dip” delivers the same amount of nicotine as three to four cigarettes while staying in the bloodstream longer. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention note that there are 12- to 14-million American users, one third of which are under age 21. The CDC also reports that more than half of those developed the habit before they were 13 years old.
Freshman Anthony Kasper said he gave up smokeless tobacco a month-and-a-half ago after realizing that chewing was doing more harm than good.
“I didn’t need it … Chewing is not glamorous,” he said. “I know it’s bad for me.”
The fact that friends were doing it and that it gave him a good buzz was enough reason for him to start chewing in high school, Kasper said. But he added that smokeless tobacco no longer appeals to him.
While peer pressure may not be as effective in college as it is earlier in life, the social camaraderie of chewing can have an effect. Curtis estimates that anywhere between 25 and 30 percent of his friends chew tobacco while Kasper estimates that nearly half of his 50 floor mates currently chew.
Chewing tobacco can still cause problems. Smokeless tobacco has 28 different cancer-causing agents and can lead to Leukoplakia – a precancerous sore in the mouth – gum disease and tooth decay. According to the CDC, each year about 30,000 Americans learn they have mouth and throat cancers, and nearly 8,000 die of these diseases. A 2008 report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that young adults aged 18 to 25 had the highest rate of tobacco product use out of any age group surveyed.
Despite chewing’s risk, not many students ask for information about smokeless tobacco, said Birdie Cunningham, a health educator at St. Thomas’ Wellness Center. She also noted that more students come to the Wellness Center with smoking issues than chewing. To combat nicotine addiction, the Wellness Center directs people to health services for free counsel in hopes of them quitting.
Regardless of the form, the Wellness Center’s messages to tobacco users is simple.
“We’re really about helping people quit,” Cunningham said.
Despite health expert’s pleas, Curtis said it will be awhile before smokeless tobacco use lessens.
“I would say there is an upward trend,” he said. “I seem to notice a lot more chewers than there seemed to be last year.”
Ben Katzner can be reached at email@example.com