Rick Bender started using spit tobacco when he was 12 years old because he wanted to fit in with his friends and he thought it was safer than cigarettes.
“It turned out to be the biggest lie I was ever told,” Bender, 47, told an audience of about 30 Wednesday night at Montana State University.
Copenhagen snuff was “my brand of poison,” Bender said. He remembered TV ads featuring a star football player and the slogan, “Take a pinch instead of a puff.”
It nearly killed him.
At age 26, after playing minor league baseball, Bender was using up to a can a day. He went to a doctor with a painful sore in his mouth. The doctor diagnosed an aggressive form of cancer and said the only way to save Bender’s life was to cut it all out.
He underwent 12 hours of surgery, radiation therapy and more surgeries. He ended up losing a third of his tongue and his right jaw. Surgery on lymph nodes in his neck caused nerve damage that cost him 25 percent of the use of his right arm, his throwing arm.
And Bender considers himself lucky. At one point the doctors thought he wouldn’t live more than two years. Half the people with his type of cancer die.
Bender showed photos of Sean Marsee, a handsome 19-year-old Oklahoma high school student who used chewing tobacco and died less than a year after cancer was discovered on his tongue. His cancer had spread to his brain stem and spine. Marsee’s mother sued U.S. Tobacco Co. but lost in federal court.
Today Bender speaks all over the nation, to middle school and college students, baseball players and American Indians, spreading the message that spit tobacco kills.
At his talks, Bender said, “I’ll literally have kids give me packs of cigarettes and cans of snuff, and say, ‘I’m done.’”
One unforeseen consequence of anti-indoor smoking laws is that now tobacco companies are pushing “smokeless tobacco,” a name that Bender said he hates. “It sounds kind of nice, neat and pretty.”
Yet every can contains as much nicotine as three or four packs of camel cigarettes and 28 cancer-causing chemicals, he said. Spit tobacco is linked to gum disease, mouth cancer, nicotine addiction, heart disease, stroke, throat cancer and other diseases.
Bender said he has testified before Congress and state lawmakers, but the only time he has ever been challenged by anyone from the tobacco industry was when he spoke in Alberta, Canada. A scientist, with a U.S. Tobacco grant to find evidence that chewing tobacco is less harmful than cigarettes, told him people are 99.9 percent less likely to get lung cancer from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes.
“Well, duh!” Bender replied.
“I think (the tobacco industry) is just hoping I’ll die and go away.”
His talk at MSU comes in the middle of a debate over whether the Bozeman campus should ban all forms of tobacco.
Smoking indoors is already outlawed. Now there’s an effort to ban cigarette smoking outdoors on campus and to ban “smokeless” tobacco as well.
Supporters, like engineering student Ethan Keller of the Bacchus Network, say it would send a clear message that there is no safe form of tobacco. Opponents say young adults should have the right to make such choices themselves.
Bender said the reason he supports “tobacco-free zones” is so that young people don’t make the same mistake he did, thinking that chewing tobacco is a safe alternative.
“What I don’t want is that people to come to campus as a smoker and end up with a (spit tobacco) habit — thinking they’re doing something better for themselves,” he said.
Today the tobacco industry is spending billions to promote tobacco use, targeting people in Asia and Africa, and targeting children, since 90 percent of people try it for the first time at age 12, he said. New products are coming out like Skoal Apple chewing tobacco. Camel Snus was test-marketed with flavors like Mellow and Frost.
Plain tobacco “smells like a stockyard,” Bender said. “Most people find it revolting.”
So to sell to young people, he said, “They make it taste like candy.”
And they’re putting out misleading information to suggest that chewing tobacco isn’t as bad for your health.
“They’re almost touting it as a safe alternative,” Bender said. “I’ve heard this lie before. Don’t fall for it.”
Bender’s talk was sponsored by the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program and MSU health promotion program.
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