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Dipping into danger

  • Marketing promotions targeting college-aged males have the use of smokeless tobacco on the rise.
By JON MORROW, Missourian staff
October 13, 2000
Photo illustrations by Shana Casey/Missourian
They never knew his name. He just walked into the Delta Upsilon dining room a week before first semester finals, dropped off his package and left. He spoke one question.

“You guys want some dip?”

He threw out cans of wintergreen Skoal and cherry- flavored Rooster, two and three at a time to the crowd of men that surrounded him. The names and flavors were familiar to only the select group of dip users. But all gathered around.

“I didn’t dip, but I grabbed two cans anyway,” says Collin Menkhus, a freshman at the time.

After his bag was empty, the man disappeared.

Most of the cans sat untouched for days. But, the mysterious bearer of gifts was smart. The nicotine in smokeless tobacco keeps users alert and awake. As nights of pouring over notes and frantic reading grew longer and longer, the dip users in the house slowly started converting others.

“I was just sitting in room where everybody was dipping and decided to give it a try,” Menkhus says. “I had never tried it before.”

By week’s end, five of the 30 freshmen had started using dip. That was three years ago. They still use it today.

Dipping used to be a habit associated with left fielders and cowboys. But as tobacco gives way to sunflower seeds on the baseball field, and the Marlboro men ride off into the sunset, a new generation of dippers has emerged.

Even with the dangers of tobacco use proclaimed in every medium, the use of dip is on the rise, especially among young people. According to the Center for Disease Control, the use of smokeless tobacco among 18-24 year olds has increased four fold in the last 20 years.

This increase is mostly attributed to males, who comprise 99 percent of all dip users. Nationally, 7 percent of males use smokeless tobacco on a regular basis. On a state by state basis, Missouri falls near the middle with 9 percent of men filling dip cups on a regular basis. This is nowhere near the top of the smokeless tobacco heap; 32 percent of West Virginia men use dip.

DIP FACTS
Dip-users are 50 times more prone to mouth and throat cancers than non-users.

Nationally, 7 percent of males use smokeless tobacco on a regular basis.

Production of moist snuff rose 83 percent from 30 million pounds in 1981 to 57 million pounds in 1996.

Fifty percent of high school students thought that dipping is safer than smoking.
The overall production of smokeless tobacco has also seen a sharp increase. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, output of moist snuff rose 83 percent from 30 million pounds in 1981 to 57 million pounds in 1996.

The Surgeon General’s office and CDC blame the increase of smokeless tobacco use on the tobacco companies’ ad campaigns. They say its link to male virility and professional athletes makes the product enticing to adolescents and young adults.

Surprisingly, many college students link their dipping habits to their study habits. They started spitting while studying for classes and treat it almost as a study aid. They claim it helps concentration, relaxation and attention span.

“I’m real hyper when I study, and dip helps me calm down,” Menkhus says.

Others just use the dip as a distraction to break up the monotony of studying.

“When you’re studying late at night and it’s just you and the calculator, dip’s your friend,” Kohler says.

The increase in use of this nicotine study aid has even forced the Newman Center, a popular place to study on campus, to post signs banning use of spitting tobacco on its premises.

A lot of dip users cite different sources for their habits. Most notably, peer influence and free dip promotions have gotten many people hooked.

Many dippers in the 18-24 age bracket have been dipping since high school. Some even before that. The problem is compounded by the fact that many of the adolescents are unaware of dipping’s dangers. According to the Surgeon General, 50 percent of high schoolers believe dipping is safer than smoking. It is not.

For starters, tobacco causes severe lip recession that can leave the roots of the teeth more susceptible to damage. It can result in bad breath, brown teeth, mouth sores and tooth decay due to the sugar added to dip. These side effects can appear as early as three months after someone starts. Pete Pagano, an MU senior who has been dipping for five years, said he has really never noticed dip’s side effects.

“Unless you count all the dead skin in my mouth,” Pagano says. “I guess that is a side effect, isn’t it?”

On the more serious side, there are severe cancers of the mouth and throat associated with long term dip use. A dip user is 50 times more prone to these cancers than people who are tobacco free.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office and other anti-tobacco groups hope to stop users before they get to the cancer stage. It is increasing education about dip use especially among high schoolers. It is also running warning and informational ads in many media, hoping to get the word out on the effects of the habit.

Although one commercial probably won’t sway the habitual dip user, it is a start. Through their efforts, the college-age dip user will be put to rest next to the wranglers and the shortstops of the past.

“I’ve been dipping since seventh grade,” says Eric Werner, an MU sophomore. “Everybody from my town dips.” Others picked it up from high school sports, most notably baseball.

“It was a way to fit in with the older guys,” Pagano says. “On the bus rides to games my freshman year, we’d all dip.”

The Center of Disease Control reports that dipping among 18 to 24 year olds has increased four fold in the last 20 years.
The goal of the free dip promotions often held at fraternities is to build a strong base of customers that will stay loyal to tobacco companies for the rest of their lives. They draw people in with their different varieties spiked with such flavors as cherry and wintergreen that are more appealing to the taste buds. The flavoring takes a little bit of the edge off and customers are more likely to put in their mouths.

“Why do they put icing on donuts? For the flavor,” says Matt Kohler, a MU sophomore.

Last semester, Skoal Tobacco actually enlisted John Shocklee, an MU senior to go around to all fraternities passing out free dip and dip-related merchandise.

Shocklee’s presentations were so popular that some houses asked him back numerous times. He gave demonstrations on how to dip, and dip etiquette. Shocklee also spread the word about a contest between the fraternities involving dip. The house with the most dip can lids at the end of the semester won a free trip to the Indianapolis 500. The Sigma Chi fraternity won with 956 lids.

Peer pressure and free dip draws customers in and the nicotine keeps them on board. Many habitual dippers remember the rush of nicotine the first time they used, a rush that is no longer there.

“It was like drinking six or seven beers the first time I used dip,” Pagano says. “Now I feel nothing.”

The nicotine in dipping tobacco is delivered in a unique process. After the tobacco is in the user’s mouth, tiny shards of fiberglass within the dip cut the lip and more effectively deliver the nicotine. This process is often accompanied by a sharp burning sensation in the mouth.

If someone uses dip continually, they start to crave the nicotine rush on a daily basis. The cravings result in addiction which can often be hard to shake.

Although dip is becoming more prevalent, the social stigma associated with it has not been lost.

“You’re spitting every 20 seconds and it’s brown. That’s not very eye-appealing,” Kohler says.

Many dippers only do it in the company of friends and fellow users. Publicly dipping can draw dirty looks and disdain from nonusers.

“I would never kiss a guy who dips — unless he brushes his teeth first,” says Jenny Young, an MU sophomore.

A desire to still be kissable causes many male dip users to leave their cans at home when dating.

“I don’t dip in front of girls 99 percent of the time,” Pagano says. “If I’m watching football, then all bets are off.”

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