Taking a Dip

How harmful is smokeless tobacco? Detective novelist Randy Wayne White and educator and journalist Ted Hallisey weigh in on the snuff debate.

American Cowboy Picture

(Illustration/Joe Ciardiello)

Pro

Randy Wayne White
When my physician told me, “The truth is, nicotine is a great drug,” I thought he was nuts.

The man was a chief resident at John Hopkins Hospital, for heaven’s sake. But he had been the first to effectively medicate the back pain I had suffered for a decade, so he had my attention.

The good doctor and I had been discussing my medical history, which includes a vicious 30-year addiction to Copenhagen snuff that began in a horse barn, as a member of 4-H. I had been showing, in halter class and Western saddle, an Arabian mare so rank that one of us required sedation. A pal offered a chew of Red Man, which the mare refused but I accepted, and, partner, I was off to the races.

I became a one-can-a-day snuff junkie. At age 48, however, I quit—cold turkey. Despite addiction’s cold chills and sweats, I didn’t touch tobacco for eleven years, though my weight ballooned. I also had less energy and found it tougher to concentrate.

“Nicotine is a potent upper,” my doctor explained. Like the drug Adderall, nicotine increases alertness, concentration, and cognitive performance while decreasing fatigue. And new research has emerged that challenges the dangers of so-called “Swedish snus.” A July 2009 article in BMC Medicine states that, “Smokeless tobacco products, as used in Europe and North America, do not appear to increase cancer risk.”

I’m not going to lie to you. I had already stopped at a 7-Eleven and bought a tin of Skoal Bandits before reading that article or visiting with the chief resident.

Copenhagen still scares me—the sore lips, the driving addiction. But the occasional minty buzz from a Bandit? Mmmmm. It’s good to be back in the race.

Con

Ted Hallisey
What the heck are we doing to our kids in rural America? There is no constitutional right to use tobacco. Some say that cowboys are a dying breed—perhaps we are actually destroying ourselves by accepting Big Tobacco’s manufactured image that tobacco use is Western. The first commercially grown tobacco in America was imported from England. Tobacco is not grown in any Western state, only in humid climates like Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. And the “Marlboro Man” was an East Coast advertising campaign to make tobacco appear manly. Wayne McLaren and David McLean, real cowboys who served as Marlboro models, however, both died of lung cancer.

Even John Wayne was a smoker and lost a lung to cancer in 1964, at which point The Duke switched to smokeless tobacco. He eventually died of stomach cancer, now being studied for possible links to smokeless tobacco. Have we learned anything from the life and death of the most famous cowboy actor in the world?

In my opinion, smokeless tobacco has never really been part of Western lifestyle. Something else is at work when fathers teach their young boys how to chew during the hunt or harvest. Tobacco is still seen as a rite of passage for many men in rural America, and I grew up in rural surroundings full of cowboy role models that claimed “real cowboys” had cans of snuff in their back pockets. I took up the habit as a 15-year-old and finally quit at age 36, after asking myself if there was any safe form of tobacco. The objective answer was—and remains—no.

That adults of legal age can choose to use tobacco has never been at issue for me. But I totally disagree that snuff is some sort of intrinsic part of the West. Smart cowboys don’t use tobacco.

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