Man scarred by smokeless tobacco to speak in area

By William P. Thompson

Area students will think twice about using smokeless tobacco after listening to Gruen Von Behrens talk about his battle with cancer, according to anti-tobacco advocates.

Von Behrens, who has undergone more than 35 surgeries on his face since being diagnosed with oral cancer at 17, will speak about his experiences next week at area schools.

Linda Teakell, a facilitator for the Curry County Students Concerned About Tobacco, said Behrens is a walking reminder of the danger of smokeless tobacco.

“He spoke at Marshall Junior High last year and the school begged us to bring him back this year,” Teakell said. “It is shocking when you see his face. We had kids who were spellbound when he talked. A couple of kids threw their cans of tobacco in the trash after his talk.”

Clovis senior Augi Briseno said Behrens left quite an impression.

“It was a shock,” Briseno said. “You can’t believe that his face is really like that. I think a lot of students thought twice about using smokeless tobacco after his talk.”

Briseno said smokeless tobacco use is still a “pretty big thing” at Clovis.
“It’s the cowboy image the students are trying to live up to,” Teakell said. “We have females doing it, too. One seventh-grade boy in the area said he had been using a half a can of Copenhagen every day.”

Clovis student Allison Wiley said she estimates perhaps 10 percent of girls at her school take dip every now and then.

“I think it’s from them just hanging around the boys who use it,” Wiley said.

Teakell said plenty of health information and tobacco-use cessation materials will be on hand at the presentations, but Behrens is the highlight.

“He brings real emotion, real humanness to his talks,” she said. “He says, ‘Not one tobacco company sent me a letter telling me they were sorry that their product did this to my face.’”

Teakell said even with Behrens’ profound message, it’s an uphill battle trying to keep students from using smoke-free tobacco in eastern New Mexico.

“They (the students) say, ‘My dad used it and my granddad used it and I use it. What’s the big deal?’ It’s a cultural thing,” she said.