Students warned of tobacco's dangers

October 17, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

For a man who depended on saliva to fuel his chewing tobacco habit, Rick Bender said now he can't even lick his lips.

Bender, who had his right jaw removed after surgery for oral cancer, showed nose-scrunching and head-turning seventh-graders images of rotting teeth and receding gums in an effort to steer the youngsters from dipping into "spit tobacco" during a presentation Thursday at Smithsburg Middle School.

"You can forget the spitting stuff - tobacco is tobacco," he said.

The Montana man started using tobacco at age 12, the average age of students sitting in the middle school cafeteria Thursday. Fourteen years later, Bender was diagnosed with oral cancer. Two years and four surgeries later, Bender has lost half of his jaw, one-third of his tongue and partial use of his right arm.


"These are problems I'm always going to have," he said.

Bender, whose thick gray mustache appeared to be the start of his neck, since has been using his disfigurement to sway people across the country from stuffing tobacco under their lips.

Bender told the students to watch for people trying tobacco and to tell someone about it.

Kenya Williams, 12, said after the speech that he would tell a doctor if he saw someone using snuff or smoking cigarettes.

"Smoking is genuinely a drug," he said.

Bender pounded that into the students earlier.

"I haven't used it for 15 years now, but I can still taste it," he said.

One woman, Bender told them, started smoking at age 12, too, but now she can't speak or eat. She was diagnosed with cancer in her senior year of high school. Another high school senior, he said, as he showed them the handsome youth's school picture, had been a star athlete, but also had used chewing tobacco since age 12.

"Sean" had leukoplakia, a potentially pre-cancerous disease of the mouth, and had to go through extensive surgery to have it removed. He later developed a lump on his neck.

Bender flipped from the high school yearbook picture of "Sean" to a picture of the teen in a hospital bed, his face bloated and lips dark and puffy. "Sean" died when he was 19.

That picture was enough for Jamar Hales, 12, who said he never would try tobacco.

"I don't want to get cancer," said Lindsay Smith, 12, who said she learned about how smoking and chewing can hurt people.

Seventh-grade English teacher Mike Babylon said it was important for the students to hear about the evils of chewing tobacco, since most students only know about the evils of cigarettes.

"It's important to get this age group because it's probably when they would start to try these products," said Roman Ganoe, a seventh-grade social studies and science teacher.

No worries, said Jacob Nalley, 12.

"I don't want to get cancer and die," he said.

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