Summer is officially in full swing and Americans across the country are flocking to baseball stadiums, hoping to enjoy a slice of Americana. Sadly… the game has struck out when it comes to tobacco.
Smokeless tobacco use stubbornly remains a part of baseball, even though Major League Baseball has tried to discourage its use for the last few years. In 2011, Major League Baseball modified club rules in order to prohibit teams from providing tobacco products to players and strongly discourage clubhouse attendants from purchasing tobacco for players. Players cannot have tobacco tins in their uniform pockets or do televised interviews while using smokeless tobacco. Violators are subject to fines.
The new rules, enacted as part of the latest collective bargaining agreement with the Players Association, aim to look out for the health of players in addition to helping players be a better example to youth fans. But the players were not willing to agree to ban tobacco use entirely.
The dangers of smokeless tobacco are evident. Starting in 2012, teams were required to screen players for signs of oral cancer. A total of 28 carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, have been identified in smokeless tobacco and smokeless tobacco is associated with a high risk of oral cancer, particularly located in the gums or cheek, areas which typically come into direct contact with the tobacco.
And, from the Red Sox to the Washington Nationals, players and coaches have come forward to detail the difficulty that they have had in breaking their addiction. While the most recent is Ian Desmond, others have also spoken about the challenge of quitting, including Steven Strasburg and Bruce Bochy, manager of the World Champion San Francisco Giants. Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2010 and his public comments attribute his disease to years of chewing tobacco, further underscoring the health threat from smokeless tobacco.
While the use of smokeless tobacco endangers the health of Major League ballplayers, it also sets a terrible example for the millions of young people who watch baseball at the ballparks and on TV. A survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 found that 11.2 percent of high school boys were using smokeless tobacco, a 6.7 percent increase from 2002. Many kids look up to baseball players as heroes and role models and it’s not uncommon for young fans, including the players’ own children, to want to emulate and follow the lead of their favorite players.
As of late, stadiums for many sports have enacted stricter tobacco policies for patrons as it relates to tobacco use, baseball included. Additionally, other leagues have led the charge on instituting tobacco bans including the NCAA and the National Hockey League. Even the Olympics are now tobacco free. In 1993, tobacco use was banned in baseball's minor leagues, but yet still allowed in the MLB. Why is it taking so long for Major League Baseball to catch up? Tobacco has a long history with baseball specifically, affecting its rules, players and fans alike. In fact, shortly after the National Baseball League's inception in 1876, trading cards with player's images emerged within cigarette packages. While many other sports have moved forward, baseball still lags behind.
In 2011 Legacy joined 10 major medical and public health groups to launch a coordinated campaign (www.tobaccofreebaseball.org) urging Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to ban tobacco use by players, managers, coaches and other staff at major league ballparks. As this season begins, it’s time for MLB to step up to the plate. 2014 is a watershed year for tobacco prevention, and by banning tobacco, the league could make a huge impact on national health – a decision that truly would be a home run.
Learn more about smokeless tobacco.