The snuff transforms his buck-handsome face. It wipes the dimple from his chin, swells his lower lip like a tumor.
"It's dipping time," says Bryan Brunner, loading a moist pinch of Copenhagen between his lip and gum. "It's male bonding time."
Five seniors at West Springfield High School -- football, lacrosse, baseball players -- are up in Cullen O'Donnell's room. Some are stretched out on bunk beds, scanning magazines. Some are splayed on the carpet, among heaps of dirty clothes, playing pro-wrestling Nintendo. It's after school, after practice, after every chore you slog through before you can hang out and dip.
"I used to dip and feel like a rebel," Brunner says, spitting brown ooze into a cup. "Suddenly Skoal cans are appearing in back pockets of underclassmen."
"Last year and this it's like, everybody does it," says O'Donnell.
Not quite everybody, but more and more teenagers are using smokeless tobacco, says the American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery. Three million teenage boys pack their mouths with tobacco and for the fourth consecutive year, the number has risen.
Smokeless tobacco is no new vice. Kids have been chewing tobacco leaves for decades, emulating sports heroes. But during the '80s, ballplayers switched to snuff, ground tobacco that is sucked on. Fans followed suit. Since 1970, dipping has increased 15 times among 17- to 19-year-old males, compared to a fourfold increase of chewing tobacco, says the surgeon general. This concerns health officials because the greatest cancer risks are among snuff dippers rather than tobacco chewers.
"We should have an oral cancer epidemic by 2010, unless we do something about it," says Elbert D. Glover, director of the Tobacco Research Center at West Virginia University.
Locally, the percentage of male users 16 and older is relatively low: 0.4 percent in the District, 2.4 percent in Maryland and 7.8 percent in Virginia. But for those who do, the consequences are potentially tragic.
Problems associated with smokeless tobacco include mouth sores, gum recession, tooth decay, bad breath and stained teeth. The surgeon general reported in 1986 that chronic snuff users were at substantially increased risk of oral cancer. Gregory Connolly, a leading researcher, estimates that long-term snuff dippers are 50 times more likely to get mouth cancer.
False, says Mark McHale, a spokesman for the Smokeless Tobacco Council, a trade group that represents the $1.1 billion annual industry. "Smokeless tobacco has not been scientifically established to cause any human disease, including oral cancer," he says. "There won't be any epidemic, 20, 40, a hundred years from now."
The council line not withstanding, as of 1987, manufacturers were required to put warning labels on cans and pouches. The following year, many ball clubs banned free samples. Major League Baseball has prohibited use among one third of the minor league players and the NCAA banned it for post-season play.
Yet surveys of major and minor league players show that 30 to 40 percent of players still dip or chew. And their young male fans continue to mimic them.
"Lenny Dykstra steals second base and he spits a big wad," says O'Donnell, who plays on the West Springfield varsity baseball team. "It looks kind of cool."
"It's hero worship, simple," says Joe Cherner of Smokefree Educational Services, a nonprofit, anti-smoking group in New York. "If Madonna sucked tobacco, you'd see a lot of girls spitting."
The case against snuff drew national attention in 1984 when Sean Marsee, an athlete from Oklahoma who had been dipping since he was 12, died of tongue cancer at age 19. Doctors discovered the tumor two days after Marsee's high school graduation, on the right side of his mouth where he kept his quid of Copenhagen.Sean used snuff, says his mother, Betty Marsee, because he wanted to keep his lungs strong for sports. "He thought it was a safe alternative to smoking," she says. "I don't want to see someone else die and suffer like my son did."
Not to worry, say the athletes in O'Donnell's bedroom.
"That Sean guy was a long time ago," says O'Donnell. By the time he would develop cancer, O'Donnell says, technology will improve. "They could do laser surgery," he suggests.
A month ago, O'Donnell found a lump -- "like a big ball" -- inside his lip. "I showed my mom," he says. "She's gonna take me in to get some skin ripped off." The dark-eyed boy bolts from the room to catch highlights from his game tonight on TV.
"You never think it could happen to you," Brunner says. He "depo's" his quid, restoring the dimpled chin. He slides over to a lamp, pulls down his bottom lip, and examines the wet, pink surface. "See the bumps," he says, mixing despair with pride. "See. See. Here."
Pit fear of little pink bumps against the combined forces of peer pressure, ballplayer role models, heavy promotion at sports events, free samples and a potent nicotine high and the urge to use snuff prevails.
"It's neat how you can get something so dark coming out of our mouth," says Mike Henderson. He is making "ice tea" in a cup filled with ice and spittle. The first time Henderson tried snuff in eighth grade -- with older, cooler athletes -- the catcher recalls the rush felt "like if you were hanging upside down." Tonight he is dipping long-cut mint Skoal. Unlike Brunner, sprawled beside him on the bottom bunk, Henderson hasn't "graduated" to the higher-nicotine Copenhagen.Coaches in local schools say the problem has evaporated since schools banned tobacco products several years ago.
"It's been on the decline, definitely not the 'in' thing," says Ron Tugwell, a baseball coach at West Springfield. "We've really watched it closely."
Perhaps not closely enough.
The seniors now go through a can or two a day, they say. They carry toothbrushes in their socks in deference to girlfriends. State law prevents the sale of smokeless tobacco to teenagers under 18. But a store near school sells $2.25 cans of mint Skoal so fast, it often runs out of supplies, the boys say. Students camouflage snuff with a wad of chewing gum, sunflower seeds or at lunch, with a couple of french fries. They fire up dips during assemblies, classroom slide shows, with substitute or otherwise clueless teachers. Class breaks are "M.D.T" -- Maximum Dipping Time. Parties are for doubling the buzz with alcohol.
"There's an art to sneaking around school," says Brunner.
But if you get caught, "coaches make you swallow it and you throw up for a couple of hours," says Nima Shahriari. The soft-spoken football player is trying to quit. But, "When my mom and I get in a fight, I go in my room, take a dip and it helps me get to sleep."
They all want to quit, but can't, they say. Their lips hurt, their gums are raw. Brunner ate a burger on a date and the blue-cheese sauce seared his sore tongue. Shahriari panicked on a family vacation when he couldn't find any snuff.
"It starts as a weekend thing," says Henderson. "The next thing you know, you're hooked." A woman approached him and O'Donnell the other day, Henderson says, as they were buying a can of snuff at Safeway. She told the boys her son had just died of lip cancer.
"It was scary, but I bought it anyway," says O'Donnell.
O'Donnell's mother warns him about the dangers of tobacco and gives him pictures of boys with faces gnarled away by cancer. Henderson's parents threatened to ground him. Shahriari's father might cut off his allowance. Shahriari told his dad: "I only live once, let me live how I want."
And so this night the boys are living how they want, putting what they want in their bodies, undeterred by the possible consequences. It's almost 11, time to go, to ramble down a set of carpeted spiral stairs, out the door, home, to crash.
They fly by O'Donnell's parents.
"We're worried about him," says Cathy O'Donnell, Cullen's mother.
"We tell them it's bad for them," says Jim. He looks like his son. The same blunt nose, the same straight dark hair, the polished hardwood eyes. "They don't want to believe it," he says. His body sags against the kitchen counter. Smoke from his cigarette curls up around his face.
An average size dip or chew in your mouth for 30 minutes gives you as much nicotine as smoking four cigarettes.
A two-can-a-week snuff dipper gets as much nicotine as a 1 1/2-pack-a-day smoker.
Each tin of snuff contains a lethal dose of nicotine.
All brands of snuff are addictive. Some brands deliver more harmful chemicals and more nicotine than others.
Signs of Addiction:
You dip or chew early in the day.
You no longer get dizzy.
You switch to higher-nicotine products.
You have cravings when you try to quit.
You find it hard to go more than a few hours without it.
Tips on Quitting:
Think of reasons why you want to quit.
Pick a date to quit.
Throw out all chewing tobacco and snuff.
Ask friends, family, coaches to help.
Find alternatives: gum, nuts, sunflower seeds, raisins.
Find activities to keep your mind off smokeless tobacco: letters, hobbies, music, exercise.
Ask your doctor about a nicotine-cessation program.
Remember that everyone is different: Develop a personalized plan.
Information reprinted from "Beat the Smokeless Habit," a publication of Major League Baseball cosponsored by the American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery Inc.