Our View: Baseball must snuff out smokeless tobacco use

Tony Gwynn fights back tears as he acknowledges a standing ovation in this 2001 photo.
Tony Gwynn fights back tears as he acknowledges a standing ovation in this 2001 photo. Associated Press file

Sweet-swinging Tony Gwynn died a horrible death from oral cancer, which the Hall of Famer blamed on years of chewing tobacco.

He shared that habit with many other baseball players. The use of chewing tobacco has shadowed the national pastime from its beginnings. Brands such as Skoal and Copenhagen became part of the game. Watching baseball live or on TV meant seeing players chew and spit out tobacco juice. While many fans found it disgusting, you can bet that many kids wanted to emulate their heroes.

So this should be another teachable moment – for teenage boys in particular – on the dangers of smokeless tobacco. While youth use has decreased by about half since the mid-1990s, the decline has slowed. Last year, nearly 15 percent of high school boys reported using smokeless tobacco at least once in the prior 30 days.

It took until 2011 for Major League Baseball and the players union to finally do something about the terrible message being sent to young fans. As part of their labor contract, limits on smokeless tobacco started with the 2012 season. Players cannot have tins in their uniform pockets in view of fans, or do TV interviews or team events while using chewing tobacco. If you watch games now, you’ll mostly see players chomping on bubble gum or spitting out sunflower seeds – not the most attractive habits, but at least not deadly ones.

The players union, however, refused to ban tobacco use on the field altogether, as sought by advocacy groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Already, tobacco use is prohibited in the minor leagues and most levels of amateur baseball.

In Gwynn’s honor, baseball ought to reconsider the subject, and it shouldn’t wait until the next labor negotiations in 2016. In the meantime, players ought to think about the example they’re setting as well as their own health as they try to break the addiction.

About three-fourths of oral cancers are caused by smoking or smokeless tobacco, which contains 28 carcinogens, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While oral cancer isn’t as common as other cancers, it is among the most deadly. There are more than 30,000 new cases a year and more than 8,000 deaths. The five-year survival rate is only about 50 percent, and many people who do make it are disfigured.

For much of his 20-year career with the San Diego Padres before retiring after the 2001 season, Gwynn had that pinch of tobacco between cheek and gum. He was 54 when he died Monday, despite two surgeries for a tumor in his right cheek.

Gwynn leaves a remarkable legacy on the field and in San Diego. If his death persuades more young men to steer clear of smokeless tobacco, his impact would be all the greater.