• 9/18/2002
  • West Virginia
  • Bev Davis
  • Register-Herald

When Gruen Von Behrens speaks, kids listen. It’s more than his words, however, that captures their full attention. His face deformed and scarred from 27 different surgeries to correct damage caused by oral cancer, the 25-year-old Illinois native offers teens a passionate message – look at the results of spit tobacco use and beat the addiction while there’s still time.

“I started dipping when I was 13. I thought it was a cool thing to do. I can tell you this. Looking the way I do now is not cool,” he told more than 100 Shady Spring High School sophomores gathered Tuesday for a special assembly in the school’s cafeteria.

Von Behrens suspected he had mouth cancer several months before he had the courage to see a doctor. “My tongue was completely split and it was all white and yucky looking. I knew it was cancer, but I didn’t want to face it. Cancer has made my life a living hell. Every time I turn around, they are putting me in the hospital, either to have surgery or some kind of treatment. Do you think it’s cool to have your girlfriend kiss you and you can’t even feel it? Trust me, it isn’t. It’s terrible,” he said.

Students sat in rapt silence as the cancer victim told his story. When he asked how many of them knew someone who uses spit tobacco, scores of hands went up. RESA I tobacco prevention specialist Lori McGraw asked students how many thought spit tobacco was a safer alternative to smoking. About the same number of people responded. “It’s not a safe alternative. No matter what you see in the commercials, no matter how many sports heroes use it, no matter how many relatives you had who used it and never got cancer, you never know who will be the one who gets it,” McGraw said.

McGraw also made the contention that advertisers will not use people such as Von Behrens in their ads. “You’ll never see a cancer victim in a tobacco ad. You see beautiful, healthy people. Tobacco companies will not show you what can happen when you use their products,” McGraw said. “You can’t hide something like this,” Von Behrens said, pointing to his misshapen jaw line. “I’m not here today for me. I’m here for you. You can’t quit unless something drives you to do it. I hope I can be that motivation for you.”

Following the presentation, students said they were impressed by what Von Behrens had to say. “It’s scary,” 15-year-old Belinda Cook said. “I don’t use tobacco, but I think what he had to say would scare me enough to quit.” Christopher Burroughs, 15, agreed. “I don’t use tobacco, either, but I think we should listen to him because he’s right. There’s a big price to pay for a small habit.” Ashley Scott, 15, also a non-user, said she hoped those who use tobacco would take the speaker’s message to heart. “It’s good that he came and talked to us. When you can actually see what tobacco use can do, it really makes you think,” Scott said.

Principal Daniel Moye said the school has seen a drop in tobacco use on school grounds from more than 200 a few years ago to only 11 last year. “When we catch them, we call the police and have them fined. It seems to be working.” He said he hopes the first-person account given by Von Behrens will have a lasting impact on the students. “We can tell students not to use tobacco and we can talk until we’re blue in the face, but when they see someone like him and hear what he has to say, it makes a stronger statement than we ever could.”

Von Behrens is visiting several southern West Virginia schools as a representative of the National Spit Tobacco Education Program. Promoters of his tour say they are particularly concerned about the high incidence of tobacco use among teens in West Virginia. According to the 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, West Virginia had the third worst male spit tobacco use rate in the nation at 28.6 in grades nine through 12. The rate among adult males is the highest in the nation, a dubious distinction West Virginia has held since 1996.