In case you needed another reason to quit smoking, or shamelessly harp on someone you know and care for to do so, I’m here to tell you that, if possible, tobacco is worse for your mouth than sugar.
Most people understand this in broad terms. Smoking is bad in general. That much has been established. And a quick whiff of any frequent smoker’s breath is enough to tell most people that something wrong is going on in there.
But how bad is it, really?
Well, according to the Journal of Clinical Periodontology, smokers are six-times more likely to develop gum disease than non-smokers. They display higher rates of gingivitis and periodontitis, both of which progress faster than they do in non-smokers with similar oral hygiene practices and respond slower to to treatment.
This basic pattern holds true for a whole litany of dental issues, from leukoplakia — itself a broad condition in which white, filmlike sores begin appearing around the mouth — to dental film — an impermeable layer of bacteria that covers teeth and cannot be brushed off. On the extreme end, there is what’s called acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis (rotting flesh and mouth ulcers) which is about as disgusting and painful as it sounds, and oral or throat cancer, which hurts quite a lot before it kills you. Gum disease, meanwhile, leads to its own series of dental conditions, all of which have been linked to greater health risks such as heart attack and stroke.
Even the superficial side-effects of smoking — stained teeth and bad breath — aren’t particularly innocent. Nicotine is what causes the yellowish brown color on display in any longtime smoker’s smile, but nicotine isn’t the only chemical working it’s way into the nooks and crannies of your mouth when you smoke. You know all those nasty carcinogens and tars they’re always talking about on the anti-smoking ads? Yeah, well before they work your way into your bloodstream, they make first contact on the soft, spongy tissue of your gums and throat, which, needless to say, aren’t meant to be bombarded with hot toxic fumes.
The irritation that follows, itself, leads to a heightened risk of body-wide infection, and the broader health issues we mentioned earlier. What’s more, as the gums puff up and separate from the teeth, they create tough-to-access pockets in which bacteria grow unimpeded, attacking exposed, sensitive parts of the teeth. By the time the gumline begins to recede, the damage can be irreversible.
Bad breath, too, unfortunate enough in its own right, actually covers up a darker process. The stink you’re smelling is bacteria, more precisely, the bi-products of their digestion. Smoke kills the cells of the throat, tongue, cheeks and gums that produce the mucus and saliva that otherwise coat the mouth. While mucus doesn’t sound very appealing on its own, it is a crucial factor in maintaining neutral acidity in the mouth, as is saliva, which also acts to prevent the spread of bacteria, wash away the food particles they break down and refortify enamel as teeth become worn down by acid from the bacteria’s digestion. Smoking, in other words, dries out the mouth, sending the complicated ecosystem inside into total disarray.
It’s not just cigarettes, either. Pipes and cigars have been shown to be almost equally damaging, and chewing tobacco comes with sugared flavoring as well as the usual cocktail of noxious chemicals.
If you think of your mouth like a garden — a metaphor we’ve used before — where any number of living things are constantly growing, smoking is like depriving the whole thing of water and then burying it in disease fertilizer. Take a look at some pictures, for the additional reason you never needed to stay away from tobacco.