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Cancer-Causing Chemical in Smokeless Tobacco ID'd

Researchers Identify Chemical Linked to Oral Cancer Risk in Smokeless Tobacco
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 22, 2012 -- Dip, chew, snuff, and other types of smokeless tobacco are known to increase risk for oral cancer. Now new research in rats is zeroing in on exactly how this may occur.

The findings were presented at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in Philadelphia.

The newly identified cancer-causing culprit in these products is (S)-NNN. It is part of a larger family of chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are also found in such foods as beer and bacon. They form naturally in the stomach when people eat foods containing high levels of nitrite. Nitrosamine levels in smokeless tobacco are far higher than in food, according to a prepared statement.

Researchers fed rats a low dose of two forms of chemicals found in smokeless tobacco for 17 months. The doses were about equivalent to a person who used half a tin of smokeless tobacco every day for 30 years. (S)-NNN seemed to cause large numbers of oral and esophageal tumors in the rats, the study shows.

"There is a very specific oral carcinogen in smokeless tobacco and it is potent," says researcher Silvia Balbo, PhD. She is a cancer researcher at the Masonic Cancer Center of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

This compound is found in all smokeless tobacco products, including those that look like breath mints, strips, or candy, and “snus,” which are pouches filled with tobacco that are placed between the upper lip and gum. E-cigarettes or vapors do not contain tobacco and do not fall into this category.

Is Smokeless Tobacco the Lesser of Two Evils?

Traditional cigarettes also have this cancer-causing chemical, but the risk for oral cancer may be related to what smokeless tobacco products do when they sit in the mouth versus when they are burnt and inhaled.

Balbo says the next step is to understand how, or if, the study findings apply to humans.

Many people may view smokeless tobacco products as safe as or safer than cigarettes. "We see more and more advertising for these products and they are not as badly viewed as smoking, but they are not harmless,” she says.

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