Cancer survivor visits Polk County to end smokeless tobacco use - WFLA News Channel 8

Cancer survivor visits Polk County to end smokeless tobacco use

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Rick Bender is a guy with the kind of face you don't forget. In fact, he's missing nearly half of it thanks to cancer he says was caused from years of chewing smokeless tobacco.

That's why Bender now tours the state talking to students, like the ones he visited at Denison Middle School in Winter Haven, trying to convince them not to even start tobacco use.

"I'm basically trying to give young people information I ultimately never had when I was growing up," Bender said.

"I had cancer from chewing tobacco when I was 26. I started when I was around 12, and then it was billed as, you know, the safe alternative to smoking," he said.

This week marks Florida's Through With Chew initiative which is an effort to prevent and reduce the use of smokeless tobacco. Thursday, February 21st, is the Great American Spit Out which encourages current smokeless tobacco users to quit.

Students who heard Rick Bender's story say they're inspired to stay away from dip and chew. 

"It can cause a lot of damage," said 8th Grader Stacia Hill. "And the things that you think wouldn't happen to you it can happen to anyone especially kids our age." 

Nolan Gilliam is another Denison 8th Grader. He says Bender's story convinced him of one thing when it comes to smokeless tobacco.

"I'm never doing that ever," Gilliam said.

Polk County Health Department Tobacco Program Manager Angela Forte says it's especially important to educate school aged kids because that's the group big tobacco is targeting.

"They're actually looking at the younger generation, and their marketing tactics have shown us that by the colors of the packages, the shapes of the packages, the flavors that they add," Forte said.

As part of the Great American Spit Out Tobacco Free Florida is offering free services to help smokeless tobacco users kick the habit. To find out more go to 

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