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The Smoke Free Corner Sept 07

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The Tobacco Free Corner 

The TOBACCO-Free Corner”   by *Dave Bell  [for publication 9/17/07]


What do you think?  Should “The Smoke-Free Corner” get a name change?  Of course, educating readers and encouraging decisions to stop smoking and to avoid secondhand smoke are vital.   But not everyone knows that tobacco that doesn’t make smoke—SPIT TOBACCO—is risky and addictive, too.  So how about “The Tobacco-Free Corner”? 


Na´ve middle school and high school athletes—boys and more recently girls—are susceptible.  Consider Sean Marsee whose story was originally published in the October, 1985 Reader’s Digest.  It was early on February 25th.   Sean Marsee smiled a tired smile at his sister, pointed his index finger skyward, and an hour later, at age 19, Sean Marsee was dead.   Just ten months earlier, the 18 year-old high school senior and star of the track team, was a weekend away from competing in the state track finals and a month away from graduation.   Then Sean opened his mouth and showed his mother an ugly tongue sore.   His mother, a registered nurse, took one look and felt her heart sink.


A user of chewing tobacco and snuff since age 12, rarely was Sean without a dip.   Living from nicotine fix to nicotine fix, he went through a can of snuff every day and a half.  When Sean's mother finally discovered his secret she hit the roof.   She tried explaining just how hazardous that form of tobacco was for him, smoke or no smoke, but Sean refused to believe her.  He argued that other boys on the track team were dipping. He argued that his coach knew and didn't seem to care.   He argued that high profile sports stars were using and marketing smokeless tobacco.   How could it be dangerous?  In the end, his mother simply dropped the subject.

But now, an angry red spot with a hard white core, about the size of a half-dollar, was being worn by his tongue.   "I'm sorry, Sean," said Dr. Carl Hook, his throat specialist.  "It doesn't look good.  We'll have to do a biopsy."   Sean was stunned.   Aside from his addiction to nicotine, he didn't drink, he didn't smoke and he took excellent care of his body: watching his diet, lifting weights and running five miles a day, six months a year.  Now this!  How could it be?   "But I didn't know snuff could be that bad for you."  "I'm afraid we'll have to remove that part of your tongue, Sean."  The high school senior was silent.  "Can I still run in the state track meet this weekend . . . and graduate next month?"  Dr. Hook nodded.

I’ll spare you most of the grim details except for some brief quotations.  Before Sean’s second surgery: "Not the jawbone.  Don't take the jawbone."  After his third surgery:  "My God, Mom, I didn't know it was going to hurt like this."  Shortly before Sean's death, a friend asked him if there was anything he wanted to share with others.  Sean wrote, "Don't dip snuff."  On February 25, Sean Marsee, age 19, exhaled his last breath.

What’s in a name? Dan Morgan of Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation gives a revealing presentation called “Threw with Chew.”  Morgan relates how by the 1970s everybody who knew anything about smoking knew it was dangerous.  So Big Tobacco coined the phrase “SMOKELESS Tobacco” for customers who might quit smoking.  Several types of tobacco not designed for smoking are more accurately called SPIT tobacco:  1. “Loose Leaf” tobacco is sold sweetened and loose in bags, chewed in the mouth and producing significant saliva (Big Tobacco delicately calls such spit “by-product”);  2.  “Plug” tobacco is tobacco and molasses-based syrup pressed together, also chewed in mouth and producing significant spit; 3. “Twist” tobacco is leaves braided into a rope before being cured that has to be cut before it’s chewed and spit out or swallowed; 4.  “Moist Snuff” is ground or cut tobacco made in a controlled fermentation process and sold loose in the familiar round container or portion-packed to be placed between the gum and the upper lip; and 5.  “Snus” is similar to “Moist Snuff” but it’s pasteurized and refrigerated before sale to be placed between the gum and the lower lip.

What comes naturally in Spit Tobacco?  Well, three thousand plus chemicals including 28 known cancer-causers such as polonium 210, formaldehyde, cadmium, cyanide, arsenic, benzene, and lead.  Sensing the dangers?  You might want to look up any unfamiliar chemicals.  What does Big Tobacco unnaturally add to Spit Tobacco?  Two chemicals: ammonium bicarbonate to lower the spit tobacco’s acid level so there’s a higher free nicotine level and acetic acid that increases the user’s salivation so that absorption is enhanced.  Feeling used by Big Tobacco?  Cigarettes are often called a “nicotine delivery device.”  Do you suppose all five kinds of Spit Tobacco also qualify? 

I’ll close with some remarks by Joe Garagiola, a former spit tobacco user who is a retired major league baseball player and broadcaster.  "I chewed tobacco because it seemed to be the thing to do if you were playing baseball," says Garagiola, the national chairman of Oral Health America's National Spit Tobacco Education Program.  "Everybody chewed when I was playing, and nobody knew the dangers of it."  But he's seen the dangers since, losing three close friends to oral cancer and seeing the harmful effects of spit tobacco on other people.

"You won't die of gum disease or yellow teeth, but develop oral cancer and it's a terrible way to go," Garagiola says. "Here you are with oral cancer from using spit tobacco, your jaw has been removed and you have to eat through a tube. You die one piece at a time. Spit tobacco is a horrible, horrible thing. I just wish I could get this message across to everyone."

Joe, I’m afraid you won’t reach everyone.  The ancient words apply to Spit Tobacco now as the situation then:  “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen.”  Yet, Sean, you are speaking from beyond the grave to those who will listen.  So there is hope.  Current spit tobacco users, TFLC can help you quit.  Parents, grandparents, coaches and teachers, talk to your tween or teen, boy or girl.  Read ‘em this column.  Give ‘em the facts on spit tobacco.


*Dave Bell of Tobacco-Free LaGrange County (TFLC) may be reached at 260-336-9349 or

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