Gwynn’s death puts spotlight on smokeless tobacco

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

Image by Bisayan lady via flickr.

Image by Bisayan lady via flickr.

San Diego Padres’ great Tony Gwynn died June 16 from cancer of the salivary gland.

He blamed his cancer on his use of smokeless tobacco throughout his 20-year career. Now other players and officials are taking a look at the addiction’s deep and enduring grip on the sport.

“Smokeless kills,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy in a June 18 story. “And yet big league ballplayers, coaches and managers still use smokeless tobacco. It’s a baseball thing, and it’s killing players, and many don’t want to stop. Or they can’t stop.”

“I’m trying to stop,’’ Red Sox player Dustin Pedroia told him before a game at Fenway Park. “It’s not a good habit. It’s one of those things, you try like heck. I wish I had never started.”

“Major League Baseball discourages the century-old habit. Baseball’s latest collective bargaining agreement, instituted in 2001, stipulates that smokeless tobacco is banned in all professional minor leagues. MLB teams are not permitted to make it available in clubhouses, but it is not banned,” Shaughnessy wrote.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told Shaughnessy that while he was undergoing treatment for melanoma two years ago, his head and neck surgeon used his visits to stress the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Selig arranged for the doctor to meet with the players’ union health committee.

“I feel strongly,” Selig told Shaughnessy. “Joe Garagiola has spent his life on this issue. He used to bring Billy Tuttle around. Billy Tuttle was an outfielder with Kansas City and Detroit and he died of mouth cancer.’’

Former Red Sox outfielder Tommy Harper told Shaughnessy he recalled those presentations.

“They’d bring Billy Tuttle into the clubhouse and he’d talk to us about how it was killing him and then he’d leave and everybody’d go back to chewing.’’

Many players remain hooked.

“I’m addicted to it,’’ Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett told the Los Angeles Times in another insightful piece by Steve Dilbeck and Mike DiGiovanna.

“It’s more than just the nicotine. It’s the oral fixation. I don’t think anyone does it just for the nicotine thing, or we’d probably all be on the patch.’’

In a June 17 commentary for ESPN, senior writer Jim Caple called upon officials to take action.

“It is not 100 percent certain that chewing tobacco caused Gwynn’s cancer, but Gwynn certainly believed it did, telling people that his cancer was located in the exact spot he always placed the chew. Gwynn is not the first player to suffer from such cancer and his death should provide the final reason for baseball to ban the substance from the game once and for all.”

At the nonprofit Oral Health America, advocates are continuing their long-running fight against smokeless tobacco.

“The tragic loss of Tony Gwynn to oral cancer underscores the importance of preventing young people from ever starting to use spit tobacco, especially since nearly half of all users start before the age of 18,” said the organization in a statement.

The group’s National Spit Tobacco Education Campaign offers resources aimed at helping users quit and works with Little League baseball programs to keep kids from starting. The site also includes helpful background for reporters who are writing about smokeless tobacco.

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