Tony Gwynn is San Diego’s favorite son. He’s like Ernie Banks to Chicago or Derek Jeter to New York, only San Diego is a smaller, more familiar kind of place, so our local heroes are much more real life-like. When news broke that he’s suffering from cancer of the parotid gland – the largest of the salivary glands located between the ear and the mouth — local news and sports websites were full of warm letters and comments wishing him well and telling him that the community has his back. And that’s great. But there’s more to the story.
Tony Gwynn believes his cancer is caused by his long-time smokeless tobacco use – or addiction, let’s call it what it is. So far, there’s no evidence that salivary gland cancer is caused by smokeless tobacco use. Several studies say that no such link has been found. However, studies have shown a “positive association” between smoking tobacco and parotid gland cancer. So the jury may still be out. Anyway, tobacco is definitely a dangerous carcinogen…
We know smokeless tobacco is linked to other types of cancer and to additional health problems (I won’t gross you out with the pictures, but the last link will). And we know that smokeless tobacco is a particular problem in baseball. A study published in Tobacco Control of 39 high schools in California found that 45 percent of high school ball players had tried smokeless tobacco. Among all males ages 12-24, that figure is only about 3 percent to 4 percent.
Why do so many more high school ballplayers chew tobacco compared to other boys and young men? It’s not rocket science: Young ballplayers chew because their role models — big leaguers — chew.
Tony Gwynn could help change all that. Everybody knows Tony Gwynn. He’s a Hall of Famer who is still very involved in baseball, including as coach at San Diego State University. Through coaching and scouting, he’s connected with young ballplayers across the country. He’s one of the most respected people in the game (and that’s not just my San Diego bias talking).
A public awareness campaign? No, that’s not going to solve this problem. The only way to stop teen ballplayers from chewing is for Major League Baseball to ban smokeless tobacco, just like the minor leagues and college ball already have done. Smokeless tobacco is still allowed in MLB because of the players union. There’s an effort in Congress to twist arms of MLB and the players union to ban the stuff, but that effort hasn’t gotten very far. If Tony Gwynn and other major leaguers got involved, and helped lean on the players union, maybe this could get done.
Major league ballplayers, including Tony Gwynn, need to face up to the fact that their tobacco addiction is the reason why so many young ballplayers get addicted to chewing tobacco. Big leaguers need to own up to that responsibility. Tony Gwynn could be a big help.