The joy of baseball and the annual spring baseball renewal is an American tradition. Hope is eternal for every team at the beginning of the season. Another American tradition is tobacco use with baseball; one that needs to stop.
Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco), has devastating health effects, including oral, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer. The use of chewing tobacco also leads to heart and gum disease, tooth decay, and the loss of jaws, chins, cheeks and noses. Yet many think that chewing tobacco is harmless or less so than smoking. This is not true!
In 1986, the Surgeon General concluded that the use of smokeless tobacco "is not a safe substitute for smoking cigarettes. It can cause cancer and a number of noncancerous conditions and can lead to nicotine addiction and dependence." Since 1991, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has officially recommended that the public avoid and discontinue the use of all tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco. NCI also recognizes that nitrosamines, found in tobacco products, are not safe at any level.
Chewing tobacco and baseball have a long tight affiliation, rooted in the cultural belief among players and fans that baseball players chew tobacco and it is just part of the grand old game. This mystique is slowing changing with campaigns by ballplayers who have had or have seen friends with mouth cancer caused by chewing tobacco use. Tony Gwynn
Tony Gwynn, nicknamed “Mr. Padre,” played 20 seasons (1982–2001) in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the San Diego Padres. He was a 15-time All-Star, recognized for his skills both on offense and defense with seven Silver Slugger Awards and five Gold Glove Awards. Gwynn was the rare player in his era that stayed with a single team his entire career. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility.
After years of suffering through a difficult and painful battle with cancer, Tony Gwynn died in June 2014 of salivary gland cancer. Gwynn attributed the cancer to the dipping tobacco habit that he had since playing rookie ball in Walla Walla in 1981. Gwynn said that the cancer was located exactly where he placed his chew.
In 2018, Gwynn's family reached a confidential settlement with the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company after filing a wrongful death against the company in 2016, charging that Gwynn had become “hopeless addicted” to their products.
Sonoma County has its own tragic baseball related, smokeless tobacco, and mouth cancer story. In June of 1998, Robert Leslie died at the young age of 31 from mouth cancer after years of chewing smokeless tobacco. He had been diagnosed four years prior and had bravely counseled youths against the use of smokeless tobacco after that point. Leslie and Joe Garagiola worked together to
plead with young people to steer clear of chew. And when Leslie died at age 31, Garagiola came to Petaluma to deliver an eloquent and tearful eulogy.
Robert Leslie, who was a star pitcher at Rancho Cotate High School, turned to coaching after a brief attempt at playing professional baseball. He was a beloved coach at Casa Grande High School. He believed, rightly so, that the cancer had resulted from years of stuffing wads of smokeless tobacco between his gums and lower lip. He advocated against the use of chewing tobacco prior to his death.
History of tobacco use and baseball
Tobacco has a long relationship with baseball. From the earlier beginnings of baseball in the late 1800s, baseball players chewed tobacco to keep their mouths moist in dusty dirt parks of that era. Drinking water was thought to make one feel too heavy. Players also used tobacco spit to soften leather gloves and to give the spitball its wild gyrations.
During the 1950s, cigarettes reached their greatest prominence when teams actually sponsored brands. For example, Giants fans (New York Giants that is) smoked only Chesterfield Cigarettes to show their team loyalty. During this era, baseball cards were often packaged with cigarettes. As a kid, I remember asking my dad to buy Lucky Strikes so I could get the baseball cards though he was a Camel smoker.
In 1962, the Surgeon General’s report highlighted the cause and effect between smoking and heart disease and smoking and cancer. Thinking that chewing tobacco was a safer product, baseball players took up smokeless tobacco again. Since then, smokeless tobacco has dominated the sport of baseball, from the major leagues down to the high school level. And similar to the targeted cigarette marketing of the 1950s, smokeless tobacco producers have promoted tobacco chewing through baseball players, even providing free samples in major and minor league clubhouses.
All tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, contains nicotine, which is addictive. The amount of nicotine absorbed from smokeless tobacco is three to four times the amount delivered by a cigarette. Nicotine is absorbed more slowly from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes, but more nicotine per dose is absorbed from smokeless tobacco than from cigarettes. Also, the nicotine stays in the bloodstream for a longer time.
By giving players free samples of chewing tobacco, the smokeless tobacco manufacturers were getting players hooked to the addictive drug nicotine in a tobacco product that contains 28 cancer-causing substances. Recently, I saw a full-page magazine ad from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with a free coupon for Camel Snuff. It was advertised as “SPITFREE” and “SOLD COLD” in large bold print, while in small print a warning stated, “this product may cause gum disease and tooth loss.”
Big League Chew, a chewing gum aimed at children, is a product that uses the deep connection between baseball and chewing tobacco. Introduced in 1980, Big League Chew consists of shredded bubble gum, which resembles loose chewing tobacco. It is packaged in an aluminum foil pouch, similar to the packaging of chewing tobacco, with the cartoon image of a baseball player on the outside. While candy cigarettes, another symbolic tobacco product aimed at children, fell out of favor years ago, Big League Chew continues to be popular with kids.
Luckily, the love affair between baseball and smokeless tobacco seems to be subsiding. In 1993, minor league baseball banned all use of tobacco products among its teams. As result fewer major leaguers are now coming up from those ranks using tobacco products. Over half the Major League stadiums (16 of 30) are completely tobacco-free as a result of state and local laws. In addition, the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between players and owners prohibits new MLB players from using smokeless tobacco, like chew, dip and snuff.
Campaigns are making headway discouraging tobacco use and encouraging substitute habits like chewing gum or munching on sunflower seeds. Remember former Giants manager Dusty Baker, setting an example for young players by stopping tobacco use and chewing sunflower seeds in the dugout? During the shortened 2020 season, spitting was banned, due to COVID-19.
Even so, an estimated 7.6 million Americans age 12 and older (3.4 percent) have used smokeless tobacco in the past month, and smokeless tobacco use is most common among young adults ages 18 to 25. Smokeless tobacco companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get young people to use their products. In fact, marketing and promotional expenditures for the top five smokeless tobacco companies totaled $718.3 million in 2017. Smokeless tobacco continues to be heavily advertised in magazines with large youth readerships, often with a message telling teen boys they can’t be real men without smokeless tobacco.
So, if you use tobacco, were chewing, smoking or vaping, please stop! It is the best thing you can do for your health. There are many tobacco cessation programs and nicotine replacement treatments. And make sure to have regular cancer screening examinations with your dentist. Early detection is critical for preventing mouth cancer.
Enjoy the return of America’s pastime. Go Giants!
Enjoy Life and Keep Smiling!
George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@ malkemusdds.com. Visit Dr. Malkemus’ Web site at http://www.malkemusdds.com