Ex-ballplayer warns about 'spit tobacco' Garagiola tells youths of oral cancer peril

July 24, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Tobacco manufacturers call it chew or snuff and extol the product as a smokeless alternative to cigarettes.

Joe Garagiola calls it "spit tobacco."

" 'Spit' is a gross, ugly word, not part of dinner-time conversation," said Garagiola, a former major league catcher and popular television figure

What spit tobacco, the leading cause of oral cancer, can do to users is even uglier, he told about 140 children yesterday at a 4-H camp near Westminster.

"It is like running across a highway without looking," he said.

Garagiola, who spoke at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Monday, hammered home the grim statistics of what he called "a hidden epidemic." Maryland, he noted, ranks seventh in the nation in instances of oral cancer.

"Spit tobacco is cheaper than cigarettes, but just as addictive," he said. "And, somehow, it has this macho image."

Televised games often focus on a player with a mouthful of tobacco.

"It doesn't make your game any better," Garagiola said. "Most players will tell you they started out of boredom, and it is really hard to quit."

He has prevailed on Lenny Dykstra, a well-known spit-tobacco user, to make a public service announcement.

"Copy my hustle, but don't copy my tobacco use," the Phillies outfielder says in a film that Garagiola showed to to the children at Camp Hashawha.

For years, Garagiola battled the epidemic alone. Now he has the backing of Oral Health America and is the director of its National Spit Tobacco Education Program (NSTEP).

He has enrolled baseball players from every major league team in the battle.

"We are using athletes to get the message out," he said. "I finally feel like I am swinging a good bat."

At the camp, none of the children had heard of Garagiola, who played his last professional game in 1954. Yet, the children listened attentively as he told them of the dangers of spit tobacco, which one of three of them will try in high school or before.

"I don't have a set speech, but I am just talking so you don't make the wrong decision," he said. "I am not here to scare you, but to tell you what can happen. Don't ever think smokeless means harmless."

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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