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Smokeless Tobacco Doesn't Mean There's No Fire

NOTE: This article first appeared on ClearysNoteBook in 2007, we continue to run it in the hope that Rick Bender's story will stop just one person from chewing tobacco. Not only does chewing tobacco ruin your teeth it can also kill you. If you know someone chewing tobacco show them this article.  Also ask to look inside their mouth. One of the signs of oral cancer developing is a white spot on the gum. If there is a spot get them to a dentist right away.~Bill

Chewing tobacco is very dangerous, a man who lost part of his face to cancer says.

2780764 As fewer teenagers take up smoking, more are turning to chewing tobacco and snuff, health advocates warn. They’re trying to drive home the lesson that a dip is no safer than a drag.

This week, a Kentucky man whose lower face is deformed due to oral cancer caused by chewing tobacco is sharing his story with 5,000 teens at nine Snohomish County schools.

Photo Rick Bender

“A lot of people still think ‘take a pinch instead of a puff,’” Rick Bender told students at Weston High School in Arlington on Tuesday, quoting a 1970s advertisement that influenced him.

Bender and health organizations worry that the industry term “smokeless tobacco” is misleading and are urging a new term: “spit tobacco.”


“Tobacco is tobacco. … The bottom line, gang: No matter how old you are, the day you start is the day you put your body at risk,” Bender said.

Bender started using chewing tobacco at age 12, influenced by friends who smoked cigarettes, advertising and a love of the chew-happy baseball culture.

By 26, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of oral cancer and underwent four major surgeries, losing half his jaw, a third of his tongue and partial use of his right arm.

A doctor told his wife he had two years to live, noting that the chances of survival for someone under age 30 were slim.

Now 43, Bender is using his second chance at life to encourage teens to think twice. With the loss of much of his tongue, he cannot lick his lips, and talks with a slight lisp. Nerve damage means he can’t raise his arm even to shoulder height.

“These are problems I’m always going to have,” he said. “I just want you to learn from what happened to me.”

It’s a timely message. The number of Snohomish County teenagers who say they use chewing tobacco has edged up, even as cigarette smoking has dropped off, according to a state Department of Health survey.

Nationwide, an estimated 7 percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students use chewing tobacco, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At Weston, about 20 of the 150 students gathered raised their hands when asked if they had used chewing tobacco.

Along with his story, Bender flooded them with facts.

A 1.2-ounce can of snuff contains 28 different carcinogens - “28 different ways to get cancer” - and as much nicotine as three packs of cigarettes, he said. Tobacco users are 50 times more likely to get cancer, “but heart disease is all but guaranteed,” he added.

Slides of lesion-pocked mouths and the before-and-after shots of a 19-year-old track star vividly demonstrated how tobacco-related diseases ravage the body or bring death.

The images made Lacey Walker, 16, scrunch her nose in disgust and urge her boyfriend to stop chewing tobacco. “I don’t want that to happen to him,” she said.

Marc Schmidt, 17, has used chewing tobacco since sixth grade after a year of smoking cigarettes. He now uses both - up to a pack of cigarettes a day and as much as a can of snuff a week.

“It’s kind of depressing,” Marc said of the presentation. “I don’t like to see it, but right after this I’m going to go smoke. It’s hard to quit.”

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