Chewing tobacco: Not safer than cigarettes

Get the facts about chewing tobacco and other forms of smokeless tobacco. They're more harmful and addictive than you might think.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

You can call chewing tobacco by whatever name you want — smokeless tobacco, spit tobacco, chew, snuff, pinch or dip — but don't call it harmless. Whether you use chewing tobacco or other types of smokeless tobacco because you like it or because you think smokeless is a safe way to use tobacco, be forewarned — chewing tobacco can cause serious health problems.

Chewing tobacco and other forms of smokeless tobacco

Chewing tobacco is a common type of smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco products consist of tobacco or a tobacco blend that's chewed, sucked on or sniffed, rather than smoked.

There are many types of smokeless tobacco products around the world. In the United States, the main types of smokeless tobacco are:

  • Snuff. This is finely ground or shredded tobacco leaves. It's available in dry or moist forms and is packaged in tins or tea bag-like pouches. Using snuff is also called dipping. A pinch of snuff is placed between the lower lip and gum or cheek and gum. Dry forms of snuff can be sniffed into the nose.
  • Chewing tobacco. This consists of loose tobacco leaves that are sweetened and packaged in pouches. A wad of the tobacco is placed between the cheek and gum and held there, sometimes for hours at a time. It's also called chew and chaw. Usually, tobacco juices are spit out, but those who are more addicted may swallow some of the juices.
  • Snus. Snus (pronounced snoos) is a newer smokeless, spitless tobacco product that originated in Sweden. It's similar to snuff but is pasteurized during the manufacturing process to kill bacteria that can produce cancer-causing chemicals, and it must be kept refrigerated up to the point of sale. It comes in a pouch that's placed between your upper lip and gum. The snus sold in Sweden seems to have a lower risk of certain cancers, but the snus sold in the U.S. is not manufactured with the same regulations as the Swedish product.
  • Dissolvable tobacco. These are pieces of compressed powdered tobacco, similar to small hard candies. They dissolve in the mouth, requiring no spitting of tobacco juices. They're sometimes called tobacco lozenges, but they're not the same as the nicotine lozenges used to help people quit smoking.
  • Other products. In some parts of the country, smokeless tobacco also comes in the form of plugs and twists. Plugs are tobacco compressed into a brick shape, and twists are braided and twisted tobacco. A piece of a plug or twist is held between the cheek and gum. Tobacco juices are then spit out.
Nov. 15, 2014 See more In-depth