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Addicted to Dipping

Chewing tobacco's grip on addicted users.

continued...

According to Greene, between half and three-quarters of daily smokeless tobacco users have noncancerous and precancerous oral lesions. Called leukoplakia, these lesions are white, leathery ridges in the tissues of the mouth. They often resolve in about six weeks after stopping smokeless tobacco use.

That?s why the American Dental Association urges dentists and hygienists to counsel patients who use smokeless tobacco to quit. Severson says the success rate for quitting has been about the same as for cigarettes -- about 10% or 12% -- for many years. Quitting smokeless tobacco is as difficult as quitting cigarettes, and the approaches are similar. He notes that smokeless tobacco users are sometimes easier to convince to quit than cigarette smokers if they can be shown lesions inside their mouths. "Fear is a good motivator," he says.

Most experts agree that until people understand that smokeless tobacco isn't a safe alternative to cigarettes, efforts to get people to stop smoking may actually push many smokers to smokeless tobacco. Severson also worries that the number of smokeless tobacco users might be higher than surveys indicate. "You're dealing with a silent epidemic," he says, "because people can do this without others knowing."

Jim Dawson is the science writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The co-author of two books, he is a former MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow and science writing fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.

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