Smokeless Tobacco Claims Another Super Star: RIP Tony Gwynn
The premature loss of Padres legend, Tony Gwynn to salivary gland cancer has already inspired change. At least on a personal level for Washington National starter, Stephen Strasborg and Diamondbacks reliever, Addison Reed. Both played for Gwynn at San Diego State and both became addicted to dipping. Their mentor’s death from longterm smokeless tobacco use was the wake-up call needed to dump what they agree is a “disgusting habit.”Tony himself attributed his many oral surgeries and deteriorating quality of life to chewing tobacco which is why he became a huge advocate for it being banned from the dug-out.
As an historical aside, the Tobacco Industry specifically targeted baseball as a niche market for its smokeless tobacco products back in the 50s. Generation after generation of young boys subsequently grew up watching their heroes pouch up and spit out on primetime TV.Tobacco sponsorships and advertising littered the baseball landscape while the Industry developed flavored dips and chew with edgy names that would appeal to ever younger sports fans.This is how Big Tobacco rolls. Now that we know just how lethal these products can be, is it time for team owners and managers to roll back?
Gwynn supported a movement aimed at banning the can from the ballpark. The Players Association/MLB resisted but after years of disagreement and debate, the MLB did agree to ask its players not to be seen on camera dipping or chewing. They recognized that this was inspiring adolescent smokeless tobacco use and that the images of all that spitting and hoarking were less-than-flattering to the game. Of less uncertain recognition was the health consequences to its highly-paid athletes.
I asked a pro-football player friend how the NFL handles tobacco use by its players. Speaking only for the teams he had played on, he replied that cigarette smoking was definitely frowned upon (though not banned) for its obvious limitations on lung capacity. Smokeless tobacco? Not so much. Sure enough, I have seen players still chewing and spitting on the sidelines, one of whom had a leukaplakia patch on his lip that was visible on screen. Yuck. Are the Team dentists and doctors not counseling these guys?
Smokers and chewers, egged on by the tobacco industry, like to paint tobacco use as a civil rights issue while pointedly ignoring the astounding repercussions of it as a public health issue. Professional sports has been a willing and prolific partner in the glamorization of tobacco use but has the time come for it to take a more responsible stance against the world’s leading cause of preventable disease and death? Once a year, the NFL finds its Inner Pink in its month-long tribute to the fight against breast cancer. Should it turn a blind eye to a cancer that is more likely to strike in its own locker rooms which is oral cancer?