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Smokeless Tobacco: An Emerging Cause Of Gum Disease In Teens

The relationship between smoking and gum disease is pretty well known. You've probably seen pictures of long-time smokers with gaping gums and missing teeth. More than likely, your teen has seen many of these images in anti-smoking campaigns around school and on television. Smoking is undoubtedly one of the worst things anyone can do for their gums (and for their overall health), but there is another concerning behavior popping up among teens: using smokeless tobacco. Chewing tobacco and dissolvable tobacco products are becoming more popular among teens, and they present the same risk to the gums as smoking.

What is Smokeless Tobacco?

There are three basic types of smokeless tobacco: snuff, snus and dissolvable tobacco. Snuff is ground tobacco that is typically sold in cans and used by placing a wad of it between the cheek and gums. Snus is a moist tobacco product that comes in pouches and is used in a similar manner. Dissolvable tobacco products are rather new to the market. Some are lozenges, while others are similar to breath strips. They can be sucked on until they dissolve completely.

Gum Disease and Other Risks Posed by Smokeless Tobacco

Although smokeless tobacco does not present the same risk of lung cancer as smoking since it is not inhaled, it is most definitely not safe to use. All tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco, contain carcinogens that can lead to oral and esophageal cancer. These diseases tend to appear after years of smokeless tobacco use, but gum disease does not take nearly as long to develop. Teens may develop gum disease within weeks of beginning to use smokeless tobacco products. They are also likely to develop mouth sores where they hold the tobacco between their cheeks and gums.

Smokeless tobacco products contain nicotine and tar, two substances that cause an increase in the amount of plaque that builds up on your teeth. The bacteria in this plaque eat away at the gum tissue, causing the gums to recede. Eventually, if gum disease is left untreated and your teen continues to use smokeless tobacco, gum disease may progress to the point that the teeth become loose and begin falling out of the jaw. No 18-year-old wants to have missing teeth and gaping gums, but unfortunately, many are not aware that using smokeless tobacco can have these consequences. Teens who begin using smokeless tobacco become addicted, and even once these side effects set in, they have a hard time quitting.

Smokeless Tobacco Use Among Teens

According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 million people began using smokeless tobacco in the year 2012, and of those 1 million people, 46% stated that they were younger than 18 when they first started using these products. Approximately 11% of male and 1.5% of female high school students use smokeless tobacco, according to one study by the CDC.

Why is smokeless tobacco so appealing to teens? Part of the problem likely stems from the lack of awareness that smokeless tobacco is unhealthy. The health effects of smoking have been widely publicized, but smokeless tobacco is rarely discussed. Smokeless tobacco products may also be more appealing to teens than cigarettes, since these products are allowed to be flavored, whereas cigarettes are not. Bubble gum, mint and vanilla flavorings make smokeless tobacco more enjoyable.

Talking To Your Teen

To ensure your teen's gums and mouth stay healthy, talk to him or her about the risks of using smokeless tobacco. Make sure your teen knows that even though these products are not smoked, they are not safe to use. Bringing up the possibility of saggy gums and missing teeth is a good way to get through to teens, since most are concerned about their appearance.

If your teen is using smokeless tobacco, understand that quitting these products is just as hard as quitting smoking. Enrolling your teen in a support group for fellow smokeless tobacco users may make quitting easier. In the meantime, encourage your teen to take excellent care of his or her teeth and gums by brushing and flossing thoroughly. A visit to the periodontist to check the health of your teen's gums is a good idea too. It won't negate the effects of the smokeless tobacco, but it will at least offer a bit more protection while your teen works on quitting.