Time to spit out this baseball tradition

Why does Major League Baseball still allow dangerous smokeless tobacco on the field? Orioles should take the lead in banning it

April 16, 2010|By Carter Beach

This year, millions of people will watch the Orioles at Camden Yards or on TV. We can't know whether the O's will win or lose, but there's at least one thing every baseball fan can be sure of witnessing: spit tobacco use.

Baseball has always been a numbers game. Fans everywhere know their favorite players' batting averages and earned run averages. Here in Baltimore, the number 2,632 — Cal Ripken's record for consecutive games played — is etched in many minds.

Well, how about these numbers? Spit (or smokeless) tobacco contains more than 3,000 chemicals, including at least 28 known carcinogens, and it releases three to four times more nicotine into the bloodstream than cigarettes. Major League Baseball players are 13 times more likely to use spit tobacco than the average American. One study showed that high school ballplayers are eight times more likely to use these products than the average teenager.

The connection is undeniable, and the likely consequences are downright scary. Spit tobacco can lead to gum disease, tooth decay, oral lesions and cancer.

The relationship between baseball and spit tobacco is not accidental. The tobacco industry has been a visible partner of Major League Baseball for decades. Initially, Big Tobacco marketed cigarettes through the players. When cigarettes' threat to human health began to surface, the tobacco companies launched new "smokeless" tobacco campaigns by providing the players with the products. Since players can use the spit tobacco while they play, the industry had a new, virtually free advertising medium.

One study found that during a World Series game in 2004, there were more than nine minutes of perceptible tobacco use by players and managers shown on national television. That equated to more than $6 million of free advertising. Those images create a powerful association between baseball at its highest level and tobacco use.

How many Orioles fans remember Mickey Tettleton for his unorthodox batting stances? They may also remember his bulging cheek full of chewing tobacco. No doubt many youths emulated his batting style, and sadly, a great number of those no doubt eventually mimicked his dirty addiction to smokeless tobacco use.

Although spit tobacco use has declined since Mr. Tettleton's playing days, many high-profile stars are still using the products and inspiring kids to do the same. Big Tobacco has done everything it can to strengthen this bond, and Major League Baseball has done very little to minimize it. As a result, baseball has introduced generations of fans to a highly addictive, enormously hazardous product for the past several decades.

Thousands of MLB games will be televised this season, and every time young ballplayers tune in they will see high-definition images of players with bulging cheeks, spewing tobacco-laden saliva all over the field and dugout. Many of those young people will eventually take up the habit in large part due to the example set by these "role models." That habit soon becomes a dangerous addiction. Some of this use will be curtailed because the NCAA and minor leagues have banned the use of smokeless tobacco. But the connection will persist as long as big leaguers chew and play.

On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce's Health Subcommittee held a hearing to explore the use of chewing tobacco by young people, the health problems it causes and the influence of professional baseball players who chew tobacco. Representatives from MLB and the Players' Association said they would make the issue a priority in collective bargaining next year. It was an important first step in the pursuit of a tobacco-free national pastime.

During the steroids hearings, many congressmen were ridiculed for meddling with baseball. Do not let the context of sports distract from the real issue here. By allowing smokeless tobacco use by players and coaches, Major League Baseball is endorsing Big Tobacco and introducing young people to addictive, deadly products every day. Please support Rep. Frank Pallone's efforts to rid the sport of smokeless tobacco.

In Maryland we are lucky to have in Peter Angelos a baseball owner who was willing to take on Big Tobacco, leading to the Master Settlement Agreement. Thanks to this pact, Maryland has received about $1.5 billion and will continue to receive funds as long as cigarettes are sold. Mr. Angelos could make a strong statement by being the first owner to ban chewing tobacco use by his players and coaches. This could pave the way to making tobacco as unwelcome as steroids in America's baseball stadiums.

Carter Beach is a student working with the Center for Tobacco Regulation at the University of Maryland Law School. His e-mail is cbeac001@umaryland.edu.

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