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Is smokeless tobacco safer than cigarettes?

Smokeless tobacco companies may tout their products as a safer alternative to smoking, but this is far from the truth. Whether you dip or chew, smokeless tobacco can be highly addictive and lead to serious health issues.

“I see patients all the time who use smokeless tobacco,” says Brett Prylinski, D.O., a family medicine physician at Piedmont. “It starts like any other habit, but smokeless tobacco can be very addictive and hard to quit.”

Another common misconception is that smokeless tobacco can help you quit smoking, but there is no proof this is true, says the American Cancer Society.

How addictive is smokeless tobacco?

Chewing tobacco and dip is highly addictive because it contains as much nicotine as cigarettes. Once you are addicted to nicotine, you may be more likely to start smoking cigarettes too.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokeless tobacco contains 30-plus chemicals known to cause cancer, including:

  • Tobacco-specific nitrosamines, which develop as tobacco is grown and processed.

  • Polonium-210, a radioactive element in tobacco fertilizer.

  • Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which develop when tobacco is heat-cured.

  • Harmful metals, including arsenic, mercury, nickel and lead.

Health consequences of smokeless tobacco

While it’s true that smokeless tobacco presents slightly fewer health risks than smoking cigarettes, it’s far from safe. Smokeless tobacco is known to cause cancer and other health conditions, including:

  • Bad breath and stained teeth

  • Bone loss around the teeth

  • Cheek, gum, mouth and tongue cancer

  • Early delivery and stillbirth if used while pregnant

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Gum disease

  • Heart attack

  • Heart disease

  • Nicotine poisoning

  • Pancreatic cancer

  • Stroke

  • Tooth decay and tooth loss

Smokeless tobacco can also poison children and pets, in some cases leading to death.

The connection between tobacco and alcohol

“Many people find it especially difficult to quit tobacco products if they use them while drinking alcohol,” says Dr. Prylinski. “We have eight neurotransmitters in our brains. When you drink alcohol, you increase the level of five of those neurotransmitters. When you smoke or use tobacco, you increase the other three.  That’s why when you drink, you start craving a cigarette or smokeless tobacco.”

How your doctor can help you quit tobacco products

When you are ready to quit using smokeless tobacco products or cigarettes, there is good news: You don’t have to do it alone.

“As a primary care physician, I try to keep the whole person in mind,” he says. “If someone is interested in quitting smokeless tobacco products, I might prescribe nicotine replacement patches or lozenges, or a medication like Wellbutrin or Chantix. Some people can quit cold-turkey. It’s a good idea to discuss quitting with your doctor to see what the best approach may be. You and your doctor can talk about what has and hasn’t worked in the past, and tailor a treatment program that’s right for you.”

Dr. Prylinski finds that it takes patients an average of seven times to quit.

“People tell me – almost unanimously – that by the sixth or seventh time, the key difference is that they’ve made up their minds that they don’t want to use tobacco anymore,” he says. “Making up your mind to quit and being committed is the biggest factor.”

Check out more health and wellness tips from Living Better experts.

Dr. Prylinski practices at Piedmont Physicians East Paces Buckhead Family Practice, located at 371 East Paces Ferry Road Northeast, Suite 300, Atlanta, Ga., 30305. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Prylinski or another primary care physician online