The young man walked through the door, then stopped, not quite sure what to do next. He had an important question to ask, but he didn’t know who to talk to.
Marion Peterson, the education vice-president of the Utah office of the American Cancer Society, went into the hall to help him.
“He asked me,” said Marion, “if I would look in his mouth and see if he needed to be worried. He had been using chewing tobacco for a while. He pulled down his lip, and it looked horrible, suspiciously like cancer. I told him he had to get help immediately. But he said his mother didn’t know about his habit, and she would find out if he went to the doctor because of their insurance. I begged him to go to a clinic. But he left, and I never knew his name.” Marion still worries about this boy and wonders if he got help in time.
Every bit as dangerous as smoking, chewing tobacco causes cancer at nearly the same rates. The big difference is dippers (those who use chewing tobacco) die of a different type of cancer. And they often die young, sometimes while still teens. Instead of lung cancer, the chewers are most susceptible to oral cancer—a disfiguring, painful disease.
It was the use of tobacco, both for smoking and chewing, that led directly to the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom. While the members of the Church were in Kirtland, Ohio, a small room above the Whitney store was used as a School of the Prophets. Brigham Young, although not there personally, reported what happened. “The first [thing] they did was to light their pipes, and, while smoking, talk about the great things of the kingdom, and spit all over the room, and as soon as the pipe was out of their mouths a large chew of tobacco would then be taken” (Journal of Discourses, 12:158). After finding himself in clouds of tobacco smoke and hearing the complaints of his wife at having to clean the filthy floor, the Prophet Joseph asked the Lord about the proper conduct for members of the Church. He was told that “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man” (D&C 89:8).
Modern medicine has come to corroborate what the Word of Wisdom revealed about the health risks of tobacco use. Dr. George Van Komen is an internist in Salt Lake City who works with addicted patients. He says, “There is no habit uglier from the doctor’s standpoint than chewing tobacco. The mouth is caked with green grime from the tobacco. The tongue, the pharynx, the teeth are all stained from it.”
The doctor becomes more graphic about what happens next. “A squamous cell cancer can develop and spread to the lymph nodes and to the bony structures and tissues within the head and neck. Those who do not die from it undergo a very deforming surgical attempt to rid themselves of the cancer. The most amazing thing to me is how rapidly these cancers can develop.”
The soft tender tissues in the mouth absorb chemicals very quickly. One chewer says, “I can run my tongue against my lip, and it will be rough and indented where the tobacco has pressed against it and cut into it.” While using chewing tobacco or snuff, the user is bathing his mouth in cancer-causing elements. Studies show that about half the current teenage users have precancerous patches in their mouths. (Consumer Reports, Mar. 1995, p. 146). Besides cancer, dippers are prime candidates for tooth loss and gum lesions.
Why would anyone continue with a habit that is not only disgusting but dangerous? A chemist who used to work for U.S. Tobacco was quoted as saying, “There used to be a saying at UST that ‘There’s a hook in every can.’ And that hook is nicotine” (Wall Street Journal, 26 Oct. 1994).
Dr. Van Komen, who is also chairman of the Utah Medical Association’s Controlled Substances Education Committee, says, “Nicotine is a unique drug. It is the most addicting drug that we know. Ninety-eight percent of people who use nicotine-containing products are addicted to it. I can assure you that if they were to take the nicotine out of tobacco nobody would ever continue to chew it.”
With the number of smokers in decline, tobacco companies went looking for new markets. One of the most successful has turned out to be selling the use of chewing tobacco to youngsters. The tobacco companies launched a 20-year campaign, associating their products with rodeos, rock stars, and monster trucks. The ads also suggested that the product could be used without adult detection. And perhaps most insidious of all, tobacco companies offered free samples at rodeos and other sports events and in magazines when the reader returned a postcard. Dr. Van Komen says, “I suspect that if you were to chew tobacco three or four times, which is probably the amount they send you, you run the risk of becoming addicted.”
The New Era asked some young Church members if they would talk about their past and present use of chewing tobacco if we promised anonymity. We agreed to quote them accurately without using their names or hometowns.
Most of the young men we talked to took their first dip of chewing tobacco at age 13. It was most often offered by a friend or older relative. One said, “I was in the seventh grade. We were having a class party. Some kid came down the hall and asked me if I wanted a dip. I didn’t know then what he was talking about. He pulled out a can of chew and asked me if I wanted to try it. I did it out of my own curiosity to see what it was like. The taste of it made me want to take it out.”
Another one said, “I was always camping with my friends, and they were always putting in big chaws. Me and my cousin swore up and down that we’d never try it because it smelled sick and looked sick. One day I was with my buddies up in the hills. They whipped out their cans of snooze and offered me one. I just kept on telling them no. I finally took one. I figured these guys were my good friends, and they had done it so it must be good.”
All of the young men we talked to were underage to buy chewing tobacco. Even though the laws against selling tobacco to minors are strict in most states, this did not cause them a moment of concern. “We have friends with older friends or older brothers who will buy it for us. Sometimes we buy it ourselves when the clerk does not ask for identification. Or we’ll stop a stranger in the street, give him the money, and ask if he’ll buy it for us.”
None of those we talked to would admit ever being addicted to tobacco. In fact, several pointed out that they had quit for weeks or months at a time. They seemed reluctant to admit that it has any power over them. They started giving a list of excuses for using chewing tobacco such as how they like to have something in their mouths or how it keeps them alert or how it’s something to do when they’re bored. But it started to sound like they were fooling themselves. If it isn’t a problem, why can’t they leave it alone permanently?
They all talked about how bad the tobacco smells and how it burns the tender places of their mouths and how sick it made them at first when they swallowed the juice. Most of them couldn’t honestly say they liked it. The best they can say about it is they don’t mind it now. They see themselves as the exceptions, the ones who can give it up with no ill effects.
But one young man we interviewed is making a real effort to quit. He wants to get his life in order, so he can be in a position to serve a mission and stay active in the Church. He talked about how difficult the past months have been, how hard it is to give up a bad habit. He’s deep in the struggle to shake free.
These young men are members of the Church and know it’s against the Word of Wisdom to use chewing tobacco, but they took the bait when they were very young. One said, “Just last year in seminary, we were studying the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Word of Wisdom is in there. When we started studying that, it started eating at me. It bothered me quite a lot.”
Just like the trophy fish with a hook planted deeply in its lip, now they are fighting hard to get free even as they are being pulled more firmly into addiction.
What would help them quit? In one way the answer they give is not surprising because it’s the answer to so many other problems: a firm commitment to the Church. One of them said, “The Church has influenced me a lot towards quitting. When I’m with my Church friends, I don’t even think about it. But when I get around people who chew, or when I’m by myself, it drives me crazy.”
All of these young men agree that having their parents get angry about their habit makes them feel rebellious and want to get away so they can have a chew and calm down. What works much better is having their parents know about their habit and express disappointment or hurt by it. “Guilt is much more effective than anger in stopping me from taking a dip.”
And as they have taken seminary, where they read and study the scriptures, the desire to live a good life, free from tobacco, is starting to bloom in them. Their belief in the Church is a powerful element in turning them away from tobacco.
Here’s a tidbit we didn’t include in the article: Nicotine is so addicting that for many people the only way to quit chewing is to take up smoking. That’s like a fish shaking the hook and trying to hide in the frying pan.
Tobacco companies in the United States are not allowed to advertise on television or radio, so they have begun other promotions to make teens notice their brands. They are the major sponsors of sporting events. Jackets, hats, T-shirts, and sporting equipment are becoming available with tobacco brands imprinted on them. Dave Stoddard, vice-principal at Bingham High School in Salt Lake City, says, “We don’t allow kids to wear clothing that advertises tobacco products or alcohol. We ask them to change or send them home if they persist.”
Seemingly innocent products are produced that imitate the habit of chewing tobacco such as finely shredded beef jerky packaged in round cans, or shredded bubble gum, also in cans the same size and shape as chewing tobacco. When children learn to imitate, it isn’t such a big leap to participate in the real thing.
Chewing tobacco is easier to hide than smoking. In many cases even family members don’t really know how involved in tobacco some teens are. The young men we interviewed were very careful never to chew tobacco in school. They say it seems like anyone who tries gets caught. They also say they never ever chew at home, “unless it’s after 10:30 P.M. and you know for sure everyone is asleep.” When they feel a need for tobacco, they say they leave to go for a walk or hide out in the bathroom. They chew mostly around their friends. So far they think their parents don’t know about their habit.
They pointed out a few telltale signs of a chewer: flakes of tobacco caught in their teeth; habits like moving their tongue under their lips and spitting; chewing toothpicks or sunflower seeds when they can’t chew tobacco.
Involvement with tobacco often doesn’t end with one bad habit. It usually leads to others, including alcohol or drugs. Dr. Van Komen says that studies show people who use tobacco are more likely to use alcohol. It’s known as cross-addiction.
We asked these young men what advice they could give that would help others keep from getting involved with tobacco. The question was hard for them to answer. After all, knowing better didn’t keep them from starting. One thing they do know, they probably wouldn’t have started if they hadn’t been around friends or relatives who were chewing tobacco.
When we asked Dr. Van Komen if there was anything we could say to persuade people to avoid chewing tobacco, he said, “I don’t know if there is anything other than telling them the truth about the addiction, the nicotine, and the very repulsiveness of chewing.”
Yes, chewing tobacco is a disgusting habit.
Yes, it can make you sick.
Yes, it can cause cancer.
Yes, it is against the Word of Wisdom.
Yes, it is highly addicting.
Yes, it can take away your choices.
Yes, it can ruin your life.
And if anyone offers it to you, say no.