When baseball icon Tony Gwynn revealed in 2010 that he had salivary gland cancer and blamed it on decades of using chewing tobacco, he set off firestorms: prominent Major League players and managers proclaimed they were trying to break the life-threatening habit, and the league, after negotiation with players, limited its use.
Several San Diego–connected baseballers were front and center: former San Diego State pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and former Padres manager Bruce Bochy worked to kick the addiction. Gwynn was reluctant to be a role model for Major League Baseball’s banning the substance, and former Padres star pitcher Jake Peavy, a dipper, and player representative Mark Kotsay, now with the Padres, did not favor a ban, asserting that players can make their own decisions. (Footballers suffering multiple concussions make the same argument before lapsing into dementia.)
Prominent politicians, along with religious and anti-tobacco groups, pressured the Major League Baseball commissioner to ban the goop completely. Reformers noted that one-third of players use the stuff, providing tobacco companies free advertising to reach impressionable young people. Under the league labor agreement worked out late last year, players can use pinches during games but can’t have smokeless tobacco packages in their back pockets when fans are in the park and can’t chew while being interviewed on television. The substance has already been banned in Minor League Baseball and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, although college enforcement is sometimes weak.
Baseball and chawin’ terbacky have been inseparable since the 19th Century. The term “bull pen” arose when adoring females tossed Bull Durham tins at relief pitchers. Chewing “does give [players] a high,” says Niki Sue Mueller, program director of Wyoming Through with Chew, but it doesn’t enhance performance, although some players insist it keeps them alert, she says.
Marie Cocco of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says, “People get addicted quickly to smokeless tobacco; what [players] are feeling is their nicotine craving being soothed.”
Plugs may provide a brief euphoria, but “Nicotine constricts capillaries,” says Paul Turner, director of the North Carolina Spit Tobacco Education Program. “If used during a game, it can cut down endurance.” Turner has crossed the nation preaching against chewing tobacco with San Diegan Doug Harvey, a former big league umpire who blames his oral cancer on long use of the wads.
Gwynn’s cancer — which led to a 14-hour, dangerous operation this year — will hopefully touch off an open debate between two factions: the “harm reduction” adherents, backed by Big Tobacco, who argue that smokeless tobacco helps people shake the more dangerous cigarette addiction, and the public health experts, who say that spit tobacco is linked to mouth, pancreas, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, and stomach cancers and increases risk of cardiovascular disease, precancerous mouth lesions, and gum and tooth problems.
On October 14, 2010, the American Council on Science and Health put out a news release about Tony Gwynn’s cancer: “There is no evidence at all linking salivary gland cancer with smokeless tobacco, not even from the ‘dip’ type Gwynn used,” proclaimed Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical director of the New York–based council. (It’s true that other physicians have said there is no known link between that rare cancer and chewing tobacco, but Mueller says there has been little research. “It took 20 years to link cigarettes to lung cancer,” she notes.)
Ross speaks out for harm reduction, claiming that only 5 percent of smokers are able to quit each year. Smokeless tobacco, particularly products like snus, a moist powder developed in Sweden, “have either no or no measurable such risk,” he says, and can help people quit cigarettes. He does not encourage people to take up tobacco, “but smokers need to have lower-priced, reduced-risk products to help them get off deadly cigarettes.”
Ross has a questionable background. According to official records of the University of the State of New York, New York State Education Department, Ross was found guilty in 1993 of 13 counts of fraud for his eight-week participation in medical clinics defrauding Medicaid. He was making $5000 to $10,000 a week. He lost his medical license in 1995 and was incarcerated for most of 1996 and 1997. He was hired by the council the next year and got his medical license restored in 2004 after a probationary period.
He claims he has always believed he was innocent, but according to New York records, he admitted that his motivation was greed, he needed the money, and said, “I violated every ethical trust placed in me as a doctor.”
The American Council on Science and Health is questionable, too. Its mission is to challenge medical and health claims made by critics of business. I asked Ross if the council got money from the tobacco industry. His response: “I can admit that we accept funding from anyone who will give us money, as long as it is ‘no strings attached.’” The council has stood up for such oft-criticized industries as coal, oil, and nuclear power, as well as tobacco.
“Our adversaries in the ‘environmental,’ chemophobic, alarmist, anti-business, anti-technology camp still call us ‘paid liars for industry.’ It’s not the funding, it’s the message,” says Ross, attacking “so-called consumer advocates.… Anything goes to cast aspersions on profit-making businesses.”
Ross and others in the organization are frequently quoted in the media challenging environmentalists, consumerists, and others who “sow fear and loathing,” he says.
But use of smokeless tobacco among high school boys zoomed 36 percent between 2003 and 2009; now 15 percent use it, points out Cocco, noting that “extensive use among high school coaches is a problem.” In the Wyoming frontier culture, 20 to 25 percent of high school boys chew, says Mueller.
“Smokeless tobacco is the tobacco companies’ playing card; they want to keep people addicted to nicotine,” says Mueller.
Echoing that statement, Turner adds that certain nicotine-replacement therapies such as gum, lozenges, and patches have the approval of the Food and Drug Administration. Chewing tobacco does not. Public health officials agree that spit tobacco is unacceptable in harm-reduction programs, he says.