Smokeless Tobacco Not as Safe as It Seems

According to a recent article in News Medical Life Sciences, researchers in The Republic of the Union of Myanmar have discovered that every patient currently undergoing treatment for oral cancer in Myanmar has at one time used a smokeless tobacco product called betel quid. A common chewing tobacco product, betel quid is made of betel leaves, areca nut, slaked lime and tobacco. But while chewing tobacco products such as betel quid have been marketed as a safer alternative to smoking, data show they could be just as dangerous.

In Myanmar, an estimated 51 percent of the population chews betel quid, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that worldwide a staggering 600 million people chew the smokeless tobacco product. But though betel quid and similar products have been shown to cut lung cancer risks compared to smoking cigarettes, they also have been found to increase the risk of cancers of the lips, tongue, pharynx (throat) and mouth. Worse still, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, using smokeless tobacco products can negatively affect other types of unrelated illnesses such as pancreatic cancer, periodontal disease and heart disease.

Though betel quid is less common in the United States, other smokeless tobacco products are increasing in popularity among men. In fact, it is now estimated that about 7 percent of Americans chew smokeless tobacco products, and many more, including 2 million children (middle-school aged and older), are now smoking e-cigarettes.

“The big lie here is that products like betel quid, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes are somehow safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, but they’re not,” says Wexford, Pennsylvania-based dentist Dr. Alexandra George. “They may be better for your lungs, but they’re just as dangerous for everything else, and if you don’t know you’re putting yourself at risk, they can be even more dangerous.”

That’s because George says if people don’t know they could be harming themselves, they may be less likely to quit or reduce their usage.

“If you think your habit is safe, you’re not going to cut back or quit doing it. In fact, you might do it more frequently than you would if you knew it was dangerous,” she says.

George believes more must be done to warn consumers about the dangers of smokeless tobacco products before more generations of users become addicted.

“People are getting the message that using smokeless tobacco is somewhat safer than smoking traditional cigarettes, but safer is a relative term,” she says. “Playing Russian Roulette is technically safer than playing with a loaded gun – but are either a risk that are really worth taking?”

Dr. Alexandra S. George

Medically reviewed by Dr. Alexandra S. George - D.D.S., L.Vl.I.F. on December 7th, 2017