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What is Chewing Tobacco?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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Chewing tobacco is a form of tobacco product that is often referred to as smokeless. Rather than mincing tobacco leaves for use in cigars or cigarettes, it is coarsely shredded and often moistened. This tobacco is typically sold loose in a packet or formed into small squares that are known as plugs.

The practice of chewing tobacco leaves can be traced back to Native Americans in both North and South America. The leaves were usually torn into manageable sections and alternately chewed or held between the teeth and the cheek. Early colonists quickly adopted the practice, especially in what would become the United States. By the 19th century, this form of tobacco was so popular that spittoons were common sights in many public buildings as well as courtrooms and any facilities where politicians gathered.

By the early 20th century, cigarettes had overtaken chewing tobacco in many circles. Still, the product enjoyed continued popularity among sports figures. To this day, the practice is associated with baseball players. In the form of plugs and loose shredded tobacco, the product remains a favorite in many rural sections of the United States, especially in the Deep South.

There are several types of tobacco that are prepared specifically for chewing. Loose leaf and plug tobacco are by far the most enduring forms. The loose leaf product consists of moistened leaves that are packaged in a simple aluminum lined pouch. A small amount of sweetener is added to the shredded leaves as a flavor enhancer. To enjoy the tobacco, the consumer simply removes a small portion of the contents of the pouch and places the tobacco in the mouth. Chewing the leaves releases the flavor as well as providing an ample dose of nicotine.

Plug tobacco is processed tobacco leaves that are sweetened and pressed into sheets. The sheets are then cut into squares or plugs and individually wrapped. Considered a very convenient way to carry tobacco, the consumer simply bites off a section of the plug in order to enjoy a quick chew.

Twist tobacco and tobacco bits are less common forms. The twist product is simply leaves that are woven into long strands similar to those of a rope. The ends are tied off in order to maintain the twist. While the primary form of chewing tobacco during the 19th century, the product does not pack the moisture content or the added sweetening found with plugs or loose leaf tobacco products.

The tobacco bits are small rolled sections of leaves that are moistened, sweetened, and formed into bite size pieces. Usually sold in a simple tin, the consumer simply removes one piece from the tin and chews the product in a manner similar to chewing gum. While not widely available, this type of tobacco does have a loyal group of supporters who prefer it over other options.

As the general public has become aware of the dangers of tobacco usage, many products made with the plant have decreased in popularity. Along with chewing tobacco, products like snuff, cigarettes, and cigars have become less acceptable in public places. While not enjoying the popularity of days past, this form remains a profitable business and is likely to remain so for many years to come.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By turquoise — On Dec 18, 2012

@DylanB-- I think I know what you mean. I wouldn't say it's sweet, but it is rich.

Have you ever walked in front of a cigar shop? It smells the same, it's just the smell of tobacco.

I think chewing tobacco comes in different flavors too now. I don't how those taste, but there are options out there.

By ysmina — On Dec 17, 2012

@anon109285-- Hey, I have a question for you. Is paan made with chewing tobacco?

I watch Indian films sometimes and I noticed that people chew something paan in films. They mention ingredients like betel and calcium but I haven't understood what that is.

By burcinc — On Dec 16, 2012

Tobacco chewing is so bad. Everyone who smokes is at risk for throat, mouth and lung cancer. But people who chew tobacco are at higher risk for throat and mouth cancer because they keep tobacco in their mouth for so long.

Not to mention that it's a gross habit. I've seen a tobacco chewer spit his tobacco on the ground. I know most people don't do that but I can't seem to get that incident out of my head.

By cloudel — On Nov 04, 2012

@DylanB – I have never heard the aroma of tobacco compared to that of a rose before! To me, it smells more like a pile of rotting garbage.

Littering is a big problem on my road. I live out in the country, and people are always throwing their trash out of their vehicles. I have seen several makeshift spittoons near my driveway, because people just couldn't wait until they got home to dispose of their chewing tobacco spit.

They spit their tobacco into empty soda bottles and toss them out. At least they screw the caps back on before chucking them.

However, my dogs like to drag them up in the yard. So far, they haven't actually managed to puncture the bottles and get to the tobacco, but if they did, I imagine it would make them throw up and they wouldn't want any more of it.

By JackWhack — On Nov 03, 2012

Many people switch to chewing tobacco in order to quit smoking. I don't know why they think they are better off that way, because though it might not be able to cause lung cancer, oral cancer can kill you just the same.

My uncle couldn't give up smoking, so he switched to chewing tobacco. Unfortunately, he couldn't quit chewing tobacco, even after strange white patches appeared in his mouth that his doctor said could turn into cancer.

I guess tobacco in any form is equally addictive. I'm glad I never tried the stuff.

By DylanB — On Nov 02, 2012

My grandfather used to chew tobacco, and the thing I remember most about it is the smell. It had a rich, sweet smell unlike anything else.

In a weird way, it smelled almost like a rose. It had that same deep aroma. I'm sure many other people would disagree with me.

By wavy58 — On Nov 02, 2012

I remember compiling a list of chewing tobacco facts in high school to try to get my brother to quit using it. It can cause some pretty gross things to happen to you.

The worst I read about was that some people develop mouth cancer from the tobacco and have to have sections of their lips, tongues, and even jaws removed. That leaves them looking disfigured, and I'm sure it is hard to enjoy food with part of your mouth missing.

It can also do damage to your teeth. You get bad breath and yellow teeth, but the damage runs deeper than the surface, too.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Oct 20, 2012
I know some people that think that quitting chewing tobacco is even harder than quitting smoking. After years you get used to that taste and the way it feels, and when you go without it there is a pretty serious withdrawal.

Luckily, I never had that problem. I tried it once, almost immediately threw up, and decided to never chew again. One of the best decisions I have ever made.

By disciples — On Oct 20, 2012

Why do so many baseball players chew tobacco? Doesn't it seem pretty strange that they can use tobacco products and also wear jewelry when they play professional sports?

By abc540704 — On May 04, 2011

they used to take small doses of cocaine and put it in your favorite drink: Coca-Cola! that was what got people addicted to it and could not stop drinking it!

By anon109285 — On Sep 06, 2010

In india the Tobacco is mixed with very little lime and placed in the mouth in between the gap between lip and gum.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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