Man warns York Co. students: Tobacco ‘screwed up my life’

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMarch 6, 2013 

Smokeless tobacco tore into Gruen VonBehren’s face and split his tongue in half before he was old enough to vote.

Food fell from his mouth; he drooled; his speech became slurred.

By the time he was 17, a white spot “the size of the tip of a pencil” had progressed into an oral cancer that ravaged his mouth and tongue – four years after he took his first dip of tobacco during a camping trip.

Before tobacco, the Illinois native was “hot,” he said, and could’ve played college baseball at any university he chose.

Instead, he has undergone 34 surgeries – including one during which doctors harvested part of the bone in his calf to mold a new jaw bone.

And still, he admits, he gets the craving to chew.

Tobacco “screwed up my entire life,” he told students at Winthrop University and schools across York County this week.

Now 36 and married, VonBehren is a spokesman for Oral Health America’s National Spit Tobacco Education Program, spreading word about the consequences of using tobacco.

“I didn’t come here as a preacher, teacher or cop,” he said. “I came here as a friend – somebody who wants to give you an opportunity to see this.”

He then pointed to his face, which appears twisted and is missing part of the jaw after doctors have tried time and again to reconstruct his face.

Smokeless tobacco contains nicotine and carcinogens capable of causing cancer in the tongue, cheeks, gums and the floor and roof of the mouth, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

According to the institute, smokeless tobacco sales nearly tripled between 1986 and 2005, while cigarette smoking among teens declined. The same statistics show that a little more than 13 percent of high school boys and 2 percent of high school girls are current users of smokeless products.

Among high school seniors who use smokeless tobacco products, nearly 75 percent started in the ninth grade, the data shows.

That’s about the time VonBehrens started.

After a surgery his second year in college that forced him to quit mid-semester, he underwent radiation treatments that burned his skin.

“If I scratched my cheek, skin would come off,” he said. His mouth was white with blisters, his teeth rotted and “it hurt to take a drink of water.”

When VonBehrens was 21, a doctor asked if he would be interested in participating in an MTV special about cancer patients. He agreed. After it aired, Oral Health America contacted him and since then, he said, he has spoken to millions of kids in the U.S. and Canada.

“Looking like this isn’t fun,” he told the Winthrop crowd. “This is the face of tobacco.”

It’s a face officials don’t want to see more of in York County.

Before school started last fall, members of All On Board, the county’s drug and alcohol-abuse education coalition, warned public health leaders about the dangers of new tobacco products that dissolve and look and smell like candy.

Those products had made their way into stores in the county, they warned, and were packaged in colorful wrapping that might attract teens and children.

“We are seeing this trend in York County,” said Dr. Dave Keely, a physician at Primary Care Medicine & Public Health Synergy in Rock Hill. “There’s a lot of experimentation going on.”

Keely didn’t have a number of patients available, but he said he has treated local teens who have started using the new smokeless tobacco products, many of which are “readily absorbed” in the mouth but still can cause gum disease, tooth decay and, eventually, cancer.

“It’s not a cancer you want to let grow for very long,” he said, adding that the cancer can start in the mouth and spread over time to the lymph nodes, lungs and neck.

Some York County schools participate in a statewide Youth Tobacco Survey, Keely said, which evaluates how many high school and middle school students are current tobacco users.

According to 2011 survey results, 57 percent of South Carolina high school students and 33 percent of middle school students admitted to having used tobacco products. Specific numbers for York County were not available. A new survey will be completed this year.

Meanwhile, officials are working to educate York County students on the dangers of smokeless tobacco products and encouraging schools to adopt stronger tobacco-free policies, said Danielle Center, All On Board’s coalition coordinator.

“A lot of times people feel that smokeless tobacco is just a substitute to get over that smoking craving,” Center said “Some of the new tobacco products have more nicotine than an actual cigarette.”

Rock Hill and Fort Mill schools have long-standing policies that prohibit students, staff and visitors from using tobacco products on campus, district-owned properties or at school-sponsored events.

Clover students also aren’t allowed to use tobacco on school grounds, on district-owned property or while under school supervision, on or off campus, according to a policy last revised in 1989.

“We are currently overhauling our entire policy manual,” Clover schools spokesman Mychal Frost said. “There’s a chance that (tobacco policies) get addressed during this yearlong process.”

The current policy is “still explicit in its explanation,” Frost said. “Any time a student is on school grounds, that be at a football stadium, athletic field out back...or during a field trip, it’s not permitted, period.”

On Tuesday, the York school board will hear a second reading of a revised policy that would make the district’s campuses “100 percent” smoke free, assistant superintendent Matt Brown said. The policy will prohibit the use of smokeless tobacco.

Still, enforcement across all school districts remains a priority for the All On Board coalition.

“We’re working with school districts to spread the word,” Center said, and develop anti-tobacco – not just anti-smoking – signage. Smokeless tobacco use “is a big problem with baseball and softball players.

“It’s a lot easier to sneak smokeless tobacco products in schools than it is for a cigarette. They’re coming out with products you don’t even have to spit.”

Coalition members have asked state lawmakers to consider raising the tax on smokeless tobacco products. Because taxes on new tobacco products are lower than cigarettes, teens are more likely to buy them, Center said.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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