Congress is pushing Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association to ban smokeless tobacco, which already has been banned at all other levels of America’s Favorite Pastime. Most baseball fans would concur, not for health reasons but because they can’t stand those TV close-ups of ball players spitting brown juice and dribbling it on their chins. It’s disgusting.
But the problem isn’t about aesthetics. The problem is addiction. “It’s been part of the game for 100 years,” argued a relief pitcherwho chews. That’s the language of denial. So what if spit tobacco and major league baseball have a long relationship? That was true for minor league baseball too, and now it’s not. One coach said that tobacco makes him sharper in decision-making during games. He might think so, but what he really means is that he needs the regular nicotine intake to stave off withdrawal from the drug. Withdrawal from nicotine – or any drug — can put you off your game for awhile when you’re an addict.
“Why don’t they just chew gum?” one member of Congress asked at a recent hearing. For the same reason junkies can’t just shoot up distilled water or alcoholics just drink orange juice. Ballplayers who chew tobacco every day are addicts.
Why do we care about whether a bunch of highly paid ballplayers are addicted to spit tobacco? Because of the public health impacts on young people. A study in 2000 of California high schools showed that 15 percent of baseball players were current users of smokeless tobacco. Among all male teens, that number is only about 4 percent. Where do you think those high school ballplayers learned it?
Smokeless tobacco causes oral cancer, pancreatic cancer, mouth lesions, gum disease and tooth decay, and teens who use
smokeless tobacco are more likely to become cigarette smokers. Public health experts know that critical tobacco prevention measures for youth include banning its use wherever young people focus their attention, such as baseball.
But Major League Baseball and the ballplayers union also need to treat spit tobacco use for what it really is – an addiction. MLB and the union need to agree on effective methods for helping nicotine-addicted ballplayers to quit. They have a duty to protect their young fans.