Smokeless Tobacco

Smoking cigarettes is not the only tobacco, or nicotine, addiction issue for teens. Smokeless tobacco is just as addictive and has it's own health risks. This article explains what smokeless tobacco is, the types of smokless tobacco teens use, and the health threat to teens.

Many children and teens, and some adults, mistakenly believe that smokeless tobacco is safe. Some see it as an alternative to smoking, especially as smoking is banned in more public places. In fact, smokeless tobacco has serious health risks for those who use it, is addictive, and often leads to the use of other types of tobacco, including teen smoking. It is also illegal for teens under age 18 to use smokeless tobacco. Studies have found that if teens make it through high school without using tobacco in any form, they are unlikely to use or become addicted to tobacco later in life.

What is smokeless tobacco?

There are several types of smokeless tobacco:

  • Oral or moist snuff, which is finely processed tobacco placed between the gums and cheeks
  • Nasal snuff is a powdered form of tobacco that is sniffed. It may be scented.
  • Looseleaf chewing tobacco is tobacco leaves in small strips, often sold in a foil-lined pouch and treated with sugar or other flavorings.
  • Plug tobacco consists of small blocks of tobacco that are often flavored.
  • Tobacco may also come in pouches like Snus (rhymes with moose).
  • Smokeless tobacco is chewed, placed between the gums and cheeks, or snorted. Some teens also abuse nicotine products that are intended to help people overcome their addition to smoking or smokeless tobacco, like nicotine patches and gum. These forms of nicotine are also unsafe for teens to use, except under a doctor’s supervision to help teens overcome a nicotine addition.

Who is at risk for smokeless tobacco use?

The use of smokeless tobacco is increasing among younger males, especially teens. Around 13% of teen boys, or 1 in 7, use smokeless tobacco, and in some areas the number are higher. Many start using it by age 11, and are addicted by age 14. Use by teen girls is much lower.

The risk factors for using smokeless tobacco include:

  • Friends who use tobacco
  • Local popularity of smokeless tobacco
  • Negative attitude toward authority
  • Negative examples set by adults
  • Problems with other drug or alcohol use

Advertising makes smokeless tobacco look appealing to young people. Tobacco companies give away free samples or promotional objects to advertise their product. They also flavor smokeless tobacco like mint or cherry candy to make it less strong tasting so people will use it. Tobacco companies advertise at rodeos, car races, and music events. Young people may associate smokeless tobacco with music or sports, though smokeless tobacco does not improve athletic or musical abilities and some athletic leagues have banned its use.

What are the consequences of smokeless tobacco use?

Smokeless tobacco has many of the same serious side effects as smoking, as well as a few that are not commonly associated with smoking:

  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding gums and lips
  • Addiction
  • Tooth decay
  • Loss of teeth
  • Sores in mouth
  • Cancer of the mouth
  • Other cancers
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Death

How can parents discourage teens from using smokeless tobacco?

Parents should talk to their kids about the importance of avoiding all forms of tobacco. Because kids may start using tobacco very early, parents should start talking to them about it by age 5 or 6, and continue to teach them to avoid tobacco. They can emphasize the health and social factors of smokeless tobacco use, like bad breath, rotting teeth, and the financial costs of addiction.

If parents use tobacco they should try to stop. If they have not yet been successful at quitting, they can tell their kids that they want to quit, that tobacco costs a lot in money and health, and that it is hard to quit, even if they think they will be able to. Parents can also tell kids about other family members who have struggled with tobacco addiction or died from tobacco-related illnesses. Parents shouldn’t use tobacco products around their kids.

Some others things parents can do to help their kids are:

  • Help kids practice how to say no to smokeless tobacco
  • Find out if the teens’ friends or their friends’ parents use tobacco and talk to their kids about it
  • Teach teens to look at media critically and recognize that advertisements send false messages to sell their products

What if a teen is addicted to smokeless tobacco?

A teen that is addicted to smokeless tobacco needs support from parents or other caring people to help him or her quit. Parents can help their teen by:

  • Not threatening the teen, but finding out why they use smokeless tobacco and supporting their efforts to quit
  • Expressing concern for the teen and being specific about why they should quit
  • Help the teen set goals to stop using tobacco and choosing rewards for meeting goals
  • Encouraging the teen to find other activities and perhaps new people to spend time with who don’t use smokeless tobacco
  • Help the teen make a list of reasons not to go back to using
  • If the teen slips and uses again, be supportive as they figure out how to avoid slipping again and relapsing into their addiction
  • Provide the teen other things to chew on, like sugarless gum, hard candies, beef jerky, dried fruit, or pumpkin or sunflower seeds
  • Encourage the teen to seek the help of a doctor and support group to stay off smokeless tobacco


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "More Teen Boys are Using Smokeless Tobacco, Survey Finds" [online]

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, "Smokeless Tobacco" [online]
National Cancer Institute, "Smokeless Tobacco: Just for Kids!" [online]
Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, "Smokeless Tobacco and Kids" [online]
American Cancer Society, "Child and Teen Tobacco Use," and "Smokeless Tobacco and How to Quit" [online]
Nemours, TeensHealth, "Smokeless Tobacco" [online]

Related Article: Teen Smoking Statistics >>