What Should We Tell Teens about Smokeless Tobacco?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
June 02, 2015

The government may soften the warning for “snus.”

To some this could sound like a dream come true: You can enjoy the taste of tobacco and a nicotine jolt without the down side of inhaling hot smoke into your lungs.

Among the smokeless tobacco options, we have tiny cloth packages similar to tea bags that contain moist tobacco powder —a Swedish product called “snus,” to rhyme with “loose.”

The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering a proposal to change the current warning labels on snus. The new label would read “WARNING: Smokeless tobacco is addictive” and “WARNING: No tobacco product is safe but this product presents substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes.”  

Three currently-required statements would go away: “WARNING: This product can cause gum disease and tooth loss,” “WARNING: This product can cause mouth cancer,” and “WARNING: This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes.”

The big public-health question is whether snus will help reduce the number of people who smoke — a huge plus — or hook a new generation on nicotine. Some 3.5 percent of Americans already use smokeless tobacco, which seems to be more popular among teenagers. Cigarette smoking has dropped by about a third among teens, but 9 percent reported using smokeless nicotine products in a government survey.

Some observers worry that teenagers, perhaps encouraged by the less dire labeling, could start with snus and move on to cigarettes; use of e-cigarettes among teens is already on the rise. This doesn’t seem to have occurred in Sweden, where snus has been seen as a smoking prevention measure. Snus also could make it easier to maintain a smoking habit, since it offers a convenient substitute when you’re at the office or in school and can’t smoke.

Is snus “safe”? It’s clear that putting nicotine into your system even without smoke still presents risks, possibly upping your chances of a stroke, though the manufacturer of snus disputes that argument. Although levels of cancer-causing substances called carcinogens may be lower in snus, it still has them. Snus may increase the risk of lip and oral cancer and pancreatic cancer, but these are relatively rare illnesses, and the evidence is mixed or shows a slight effect. Sweden has not seen a big surge in these cancers.

Smoking, on the other hand, sets you up for heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Because nicotine is so addictive, even after people start coughing they may struggle to stop. The number of American smokers has dropped almost in half since 1965 in the United States, but more than 58 million people, 23 percent of the population, currently smoke cigarettes, according to a 2010 government survey. Although nearly 35 million of them want to quit, the majority who try to quit on their own relapse, usually within a week. Withdrawal symptoms — irritability, craving, depression, anxiety, poor attention, sleep problems and a surge in appetite — typically last weeks, and for some, go on for months.

Smokeless tobacco is also addictive, as the new label would point out. “No tobacco product is safe but this product presents substantially lower risks to health than cigarettes” and “This product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes” are both correct statements. Which would you like your teenager to read? Better yet, what can you do to keep your teenager from using tobacco?


April 01, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN