Big League Chew

The “Baseball Gods” are conspiring.

No, I'm not talking about the Phillies’ failure to make it beyond the league division series this year. And I’m not referring to the painful (next) season-delaying injury to slugger Ryan Howard.

Instead, I’m talking about the baseball commissioner, several owners, politicians, and public health leaders coming together to try to put an end to the use of smokeless tobacco — including chewing tobacco and dip — during Major League Baseball games by players and coaches. Minor League Baseball banned the practice in 1993. MLB has been slow to follow.

Just last week U.S. Senators Lautenberg of New Jersey, Durbin of Illinois, Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Harkin of Iowa wrote to players’ union head Michael Weiner, explaining why they want smokeless tobacco banned from the sport. “When players use smokeless tobacco, they endanger not only their health, but also the health of millions of children who follow their example.” Given the number of kids tuning in to the Series, the senators wanted to call attention to the consequences of Big League chew. “Unfortunately, as these young fans root for their favorite team and players, they also will watch their on-field heroes use smokeless tobacco products,” the senators wrote.

Commissioner Selig, though late to the game, has echoed these sentiments. He recently announced that during the offseason, MLB will try to add a ban of smokeless tobacco to the next collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Chewing tobacco is an old baseball tradition, but supporters of the ban cite recent statistics on smokeless tobacco use among kids to support their position. Public health officials are worried, calling attention to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found a dramatic increase in smokeless tobacco use between 2003 and 2009 among high school boys, in particular. In some states, including Kentucky, Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming, almost 25% of high school boys now use the product.

Increased use of smokeless tobacco brings an associated rise in tobacco- related illnesses including oral cancers, gum disease, and leukoplakia (lesions in the mouth that can lead to oral cancer), as well as esophageal, pharynx, larynx, stomach and pancreatic cancers. Smokeless tobacco users have an 80% increased risk of oral cancer, and a 60% increased risk of pancreatic and esophageal cancers. Despite these risks, between 1998 and 2006, the five largest smokeless tobacco companies in the United States have increased their advertising and marketing budgets by more than 140%. The products are also being more aggressively marketed to youth.

From a public health perspective, the proposed ban makes a lot of sense. But this is a tough “ask.” We are not asking the players and coaches to stop chewing and spitting because it is bad for them; the ban doesn’t call for players to stop chewing on their own time. We’re asking because it’s bad for the population that emulates ball players - especially the kids watching at home and in the ballpark.

And this is where public health efforts can be difficult. Supporters of the ban are asking ball players to give something up, to sacrifice a “tradition” of the game for the well-being of their fans. This is certainly less complicated than the steroid scandal, which is not only about player and fan health, but also about the integrity of the game itself.

Yes, players should be allowed to make their own decisions and be treated like adults, as some players have argued. But they must also realize how much they are emulated, and the responsibilities that come with being sports heroes. No one said being a role model was easy. The players’ union should embrace the ban, and start distributing to its members more sunflower seeds and what was my favorite candy as a kid: the chewing gum “Big League Chew.”

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