One of the alternatives to cigarette smoking that is rising in popularity is the use of smokeless tobacco (ST). In simple terms, this technique involves chewing, dipping, snuffing, dissolving in the mouth or applying thru the skin specially prepared products that contain tobacco derivatives. These methods of tobacco usage are supposed to diminish the health hazards from tobacco, as the dangerous processes and by-products that come from smoking are eliminated in the oral administration of tobacco.
Tobacco and smoking
Tobacco has long been used to treat insect bites, minor cuts, and as antidote for strychnine poisoning. Aside from medicinal uses, tobacco is also known for its insecticidal properties, with the nicotine sulphate pesticide in wide use in the horticulture industry.
Tobacco’s reputation is defined mainly by nicotine, the alkaloid substance that comprises anywhere from 1 to 7 percent of the leaves. Nicotine is a mood-altering substance that is both a stimulant and a relaxant; it causes the release of glucose and adrenaline that stimulate nerve cells, then paralyse said nerve cells to achieve a mildly relaxed state. Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, which is the reason why smokers find it difficult to stop smoking.
In cigarettes, the blend of tobacco leaves is mixed with additives that include sugars, ammonia compounds, humectants (moisture retainers), cocoa and liquorice. These additives are supposed to enhance taste, decrease harshness of the blend and in some cases, lessen environmental tobacco smoke. Researchers have postulated though that these additives were added mainly to entice young smokers.
When smoking, the blended tobacco and additives are pyrolyzed (decomposed at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen), resulting in inhalation of vapours which are absorbed by the smoker’s lungs. The vapours in the smoke include nicotine, carbon monoxide, methanol, acetone, ammonia, toluene and thousands of other chemicals, including 60 known carcinogenic substances.
Eliminating the smoke
By eliminating the pyrolisis process and the resulting harmful vapours, manufacturers of ST hope to give smokers an alternative means to get a nicotine hit without the need to light up. Most of the dangers associated with smoking are removed, primarily the inhalation of carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke.
Smokeless tobacco is now available in three forms: moist snuff that contains fine grain tobacco leaves, chewing tobacco with shredded or bricked leaves, and dissolvable tobacco with finely grained bits that dissolve in the mouth.
Users take in nicotine from snuff by pinching a bit from the can or pack and placing this between the lower lip and gum, sucking occasionally to disperse the nicotine and allow it to be absorbed inside the mouth. Chewing tobacco – historically the most prevalent form of tobacco use in the US before cigarettes became popular – must be crushed by the teeth and sucked on to release the flavour and nicotine. The third form comes with varying nicotine content in pellets or sticks that dissolve in the mouth.
Both snuff and chewing methods require the tobacco bits to sit inside the mouth for a while, the duration depending on the user’s preference. The user need not swallow the tobacco juices when using these two forms; in fact, the user must spit out often, to avoid saliva build-up in the mouth. The dissolvable form, on the other hand, is usually marketed as spit-free.
Is non-combustion tobacco safe?
Current available research is divided on whether smokeless tobacco is safe or not. But since nicotine in any form is highly addictive, and smokeless tobacco contains higher nicotine concentrations than ordinary cigarettes, health practitioners discourage the use of ST, even if current data on its health risks are still inconclusive.
Moreover, since ST is taken orally, people are at risk for tooth decay, gum diseases, mouth ulcers (specifically leukoplakia) and cancers of the mouth, lip, tongue and throat. Note that tobacco-specific nitrosamines in smokeless tobacco products are among the carcinogenic substances listed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as early as the year 2000.
Many smokeless tobacco users employ the product as a smoking cessation aid, to help smokers overcome nicotine cravings arising from cigarette withdrawal. But since health authorities are adamantly opposed to all forms of habit-forming tobacco use, clinicians usually prescribe other means to administer nicotine to satisfy cravings, such as patches and medications. This also holds true for using smokeless tobacco in no-smoking workplaces and transport systems.
Smokeless tobacco may give some benefits, but disadvantages far outweigh the few good things that can be derived from its use. Shifting from one tobacco habit to another tobacco habit puts one in the same high cancer-risk group like before. Worse, there is now bad breath, stained teeth and persistent mouth sores to contend with. Hence, clean and nicotine-free lifestyle is still the way to go.
Tabaci Folia. Tobacco Leaves. Nicotina, Nicotine. Nicotinae Tartras, Nicotine Tartrate.
Definition of Smokeless tobacco
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