In June Major League Baseball fans mourned the death of Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Fame outfielder and accomplished hitter. He died from salivary gland cancer, a form of oral cancer. Gwynn attributed his cancer to the smokeless tobacco that he used throughout his entire career. Most people know that tobacco can cause heart disease, stroke, cancer of the lung, liver, pancreas and bladder, and a host of other diseases. But most users don't consider what tobacco does to the site where they actually place it -- their mouth.
In addition to causing tooth decay and gum disease, studies have shown that using any form of tobacco increases your risk for oral cancer. While cigarettes are one of the most dangerous forms of tobacco, smokeless tobacco is not harmless either. Use of smokeless tobacco increases your risk of oral cancer also. Certain oral cancers of the cheek, gingiva (gums), or inner surface of the lips (where the tobacco is placed) are even more likely to occur in smokeless tobacco users. Dr. Gregory Chadwick, former president of the American Dental Association, gave the perfect response to a tobacco industry push to promote smokeless tobacco as "less harmful":
"I suppose you could argue that shooting yourself in the leg poses less of a health risk than shooting yourself in the head. But do we really need to have that discussion? Tobacco use kills people, period."
Many of our Soldiers are putting themselves at risk with tobacco use. Soldiers who never used tobacco before entering the military pick up the habit after Initial Entry Training or during deployments in an attempt to fit in with new friends, cope with stress, or relieve boredom. According to the Army Corporate Dental System, almost one third of Soldiers use some form of tobacco. Twelve percent of Soldiers said they use smokeless tobacco, which is even more addictive than cigarettes. As former Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett told the Los Angeles Times "It's more than just the nicotine. It's the oral fixation. I don't think anyone does it just for the nicotine thing, or we'd probably all be on the patch.''
Army dentists often hear Soldiers voice the same sentiment when they are asked to consider quitting. It may be hard, but quitting tobacco is one of the best things that you can do to ensure your dental readiness and protect your health. It may even save your life. Ask your dentist or primary care provider for help quitting tobacco. They are trained to help connect you with free tobacco cessation services at your medical treatment facility. The US Army Public Health Command also has links to an array of free DoD and civilian resources to assist Soldiers in quitting at http://phc.amedd.army.mil/TOPICS/HEALTHYLIVING/TFL/Pages/default.aspx
If you use tobacco, make sure you tell your dentist, and get an oral cancer examination as part of your annual dental exam. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial research also recommends that you see a dentist if you have any of the following symptoms that last for more than 2 weeks:
• A sore, irritation, lump or thick patch in your mouth, lip, or throat
• A white or red patch in your mouth
• A feeling that something is caught in your throat
• Difficulty chewing or swallowing
• Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
• Numbness in your tongue or other areas of your mouth
• Swelling of your jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
• Pain in one ear without hearing loss