Beyond The Hype: Informed Choices

By Diane M. Grassi, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: October 31, 2010

NEVADA (BASN) — During this past Major League Baseball (MLB) post-season, a direct plea was made by Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ6) to the managements of MLB, the Texas Rangers and the San Francisco Giants.

He requested, in a letter dated October 25, 2010, to “Ban the use of tobacco products during the World Series.”

Congressman Pallone was specifically making reference to the use of smokeless tobacco products and the impact upon youth who see MLB players routinely using the product during MLB games.

As the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s Chairman of its Subcommittee on Health, Congressman Pallone is “Concerned about the free advertising the tobacco industry receives and, more importantly, the influence this exposure has on young people.”

But the Congressman’s appeal itself could fall on deaf ears, if only because the message is coming from the United States Congress. And the American people have already have but had a belly full of Congressional hearings with respect to athletes’ use of anabolic steroids and performance enhancing substances.

In fact, Congressman Pallone has held a hearing already this year, on April 14, 2010, on smokeless tobacco use and the impact it has on youth.

But after all of the federal government’s time and taxpayer resources spent on the so-called prevention of health risks tied to performance enhancing drugs, athletes have already moved on to the next undetectable drug of choice, such as variations of human growth hormone (HGH).

And what have the American people have been left with after all of this? Two upcoming federal perjury trials of once guaranteed Baseball Hall of Famers, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Since MLB has a policy in place, in its minor leagues system, banning the use of smokeless or chewing tobacco, it believes it has discouraged the use of the product in MLB.

However, it is estimated that a third of all MLB players still use the product. And Congressman Pallone in his letter to MLB cites that approximately 15% of high school athletes use smokeless tobacco.

And the question must be asked, if MLB is encouraged by its minor leagues program, in effect since 1993, how does it account for 33% of its big leaguers using the product today, when most all of them went through the minor league system when the ban was in place?

The point is that neither Congress nor MLB can mandate behavior but can only outlaw the use of smokeless tobacco. For MLB, it would have to ban smokeless tobacco in its MLB clubhouses and on its fields of play.

And unless state or federal laws are passed that make tobacco an illegal product in the U.S., neither the government nor MLB can either legislate or potentially scare people into a desired outcome. That is still the job of parents and educators, with respect to our young people.

But something that might have a profound impact on our young people and even those players currently playing both in MLB and its minor leagues, is the real-time experience of those former players who have been struck down by illness and cancer, which may be the direct or indirect result of using smokeless tobacco.

It was learned in October 2010 that Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn, has parotid cancer, otherwise known as a malignancy of the salivary gland or a lymph node of the mouth. Mr. Gwynn had two prior benign tumors, both removed in the past decade, and had been cancer free.

When another tumor recently surfaced, this time he was not so lucky. He will receive approximately 8 radiation treatments, which his doctors believe will leave him cancer free, with prescribed follow-up care.

Mr. Gwynn made a personal and public speculation that he thought there might be some correlation between his use of smoking tobacco, during his MLB playing career. “I haven’t discussed that with doctors yet, but I’m thinking it’s related to dipping”, he said recently.

And it should be noted that Mr. Gwynn continued his use of chewing tobacco even after he had already had his two benign tumors removed.

After all, the addictive nature of smokeless tobacco contains the same nicotine and habit forming properties as cigarettes. And unfortunately, it is also well known that chewing tobacco contains as many as 28 carcinogens or cancer causing agents.

The medical literature indicates that “dippers” on average consume up to 10 times the amount of cancer causing agents than do those who smoke tobacco cigarettes.

Although there have not been scientific studies done to date specifically with regard to parotid cancer and smokeless tobacco use, other types of oral cancers as well as numerous other cancers and their relationships to smokeless tobacco have been well documented.

But especially since there is no currently accessible data on smokeless chew and parotid cancer, given Mr. Gwynn’s status, not only as a Hall of Famer but as the baseball coach at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), it offers a wonderful opportunity for him; to not only educate himself on the potential harm of using chewing tobacco but to inform the young people he directly works with and by extension the community at-large.

There are already some in the medical community arguing as to whether Mr. Gwynn could have fallen victim to cancer as a direct result of the use of chewing tobacco. However, there should not be an argument but rather a call for the necessary conclusive data.

As with any type of cancer there is not necessarily a cause and effect, nor is it ever so cut and dried with cancer patients, such as explaining those patients who wind up with lung cancer, yet, who never smoked at all.

More importantly, is that Mr. Gwynn’s outreach would do far more than would another Congressional hearing, or an idle threat by MLB to ban chewing tobacco.

Tony Gwynn could perhaps have the biggest impact yet on informed choice, rather than fear of another mandate. And while tobacco products remain legal, that perhaps should be the message; to make an educated choice.

We wish Tony Gwynn nothing but good health going forward and hope that he can add to his already shining example and legacy, at the very least by encouraging good oral health; an issue that gets scant attention if ever addressed to our young people at all.

As Congressman Pallone states in his letter, “The players are role models whose practices can have a real impact that goes beyond their direct use of chewing tobacco.” And that is whether they like it or not. As such, they can make a positive difference, too.