November 2, 2016

America's pastime: Baseball and chewing

I think I've watched more baseball in the past week than I have in the past few years combined (but seriously, how about this World Series?!).  However, instead of being wowed by the pitching prowess of Josh Tomlin or Jake Arrieta, I instead keep noticing all the players, managers, etc. constantly spitting. Sometimes they are chewing gum, but I'm willing to bet quite a few are chewing tobacco.

Baseball and tobacco (both cigarettes and smokeless) have a long, tumultuous history. Rules in regards to smokeless tobacco were put in place in 2011 as part of the latest collective bargaining agreement with Major League Baseball (MLB) and the MLB Players Association: Players cannot have tobacco tins in their uniform pockets or do televised interviews while using smokeless tobacco (an initial proposal for an MLB league-wide ban on smokeless tobacco was rejected by the players' union). Smokeless tobacco has been banned throughout the minor leagues since 1993. Even though MLB is trying to discourage players from using smokeless tobacco, a survey done by the Boston Globe of players invited to Red Sox spring training in 2014 found that about 36 percent were smokeless tobacco users (this figure matches another survey by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society). Although these numbers are a huge decrease from baseball players of the past century, it is still five times higher than smokeless tobacco rates of average American males (about 6 percent).

I can't think of any sport that displays an addictive substance so prominently. Tobacco companies are no longer able to target ads to teenagers (gone are the days of Joe Camel); however, who needs to pay for chewing tobacco advertising when they get it for free while watching America's favorite pastime? Fears that young fans will imitate their sports heroes are well founded (a scene from The Sandlot comes to mind). According to the most recent Monitoring the Future Survey, 13 percent of high school students have tried smokeless tobacco (and 2.9 percent currently use it at least once daily). According to the CDC, high school athletes use smokeless tobacco at nearly twice the rate of non-athletes and their rate of use increased from 10 percent to 11.1 percent between 2001 and 2013.

Some people consider smokeless tobacco to be safer than smoking tobacco since you are not inhaling all the toxins of cigarettes. The sucking and chewing of smokeless tobacco allows nicotine to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the tissues in your mouth. Although the nicotine is absorbed more slowly, a greater amount stays in the bloodstream (in other words, greater nicotine blood levels). Smokeless tobacco also contains at least 28 cancer-causing chemicals. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of various forms of head and neck cancer (including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and pancreas), gum disease and heart disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Former San Diego Padres player and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2010 - he blamed his decades-long chewing tobacco habit. He passed away in 2014 at 54 years old. Other players that battled head and neck cancer include Curt Schilling, Babe Ruth, Brett Butler and Bill Tuttle. Starting in 2012, MLB teams were required to have dentists screen players for signs of oral cancer.

Although MLB was unable to ban smokeless tobacco entirely, some of the stadiums are taking matters into their own hands — many cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago will fine people who are caught using smokeless tobacco in the stadium (including players, managers, umpires and fans). The idea behind these rules is look out for the health of the players and fans, present a better example to youth, keep the stadiums clean (how gross is it to step in a pile of someone's chew-spit?!) and clean up the image of baseball. No more spitting.