Smokeless tobacco — dip, snuff, chew, that little pinch between your cheek and gum — is as American in many ways as hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. But another American institution is making it clear that the dip-and-spit crowd is no longer welcome, thanks to help from some unlikely sources.
Major League Baseball, hoping to rid itself of its image as a game with chipmunk-cheeked, constantly expectorating ballplayers, is turning to big-city government to do what it can't.
New York City is the latest to come to the rescue. The city council there recently banned all tobacco products at every ticketed sporting event in the city, including baseball games at the Mets’ Citi Field and Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The Big Apple joins Boston (home of the Red Sox), San Francisco (the Giants), Los Angeles (the Dodgers) and Chicago (the Cubs and White Sox) in tossing tobacco products from their stadiums. California will enact a statewide law before the 2017 season, which will cover additional ballparks in San Diego (the Padres), Anaheim (the Angels) and Oakland (the A’s).
The actions delight Major League Baseball’s front office, which has been trying to ban smokeless tobacco for years. An all-out cleansing of the game has proven tricky, though. Any ban would have to be OK’d first by the Major League Baseball Players Association, through collective bargaining. And the last time Baseball tried to get players to give up smokeless tobacco, in 2011, the union balked (though the MLBPA did agree to some measures to make its use less visible).
This year, at least in the cities with new laws, the players will have to stop. But MLBPA head Tony Clark continues to point out that tobacco is a legal product. Per the Chicago Sun Times:
“The union’s stance is that the legislators have the ability, obviously, to legislate as they see fit,” Clark said. “We have always taken the position — and will continue to take the position — that the most important part of these conversations has more to do with education, support and cessation than it does banning and eliminating, particularly something that has been, and continues to be, legal and over the counter.”
The league contends — and many players agree — that tobacco use sets a bad example for impressionable youth. Groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, through its Tobacco-Free Baseball initiative, estimate that every year, some 535,000 kids between the ages of 12-17 take a dip for the first time. Much of that, the group says, is because of the example big-league ballplayers set. The group’s president, Matthew Myers, estimates that between 25-30 percent of Major League players use smokeless tobacco.
The group, citing statistics from the National Cancer Institute and the Surgeon General’s office, says that smokeless tobacco contains 28 known carcinogens and can cause oral, pancreatic and esophageal cancer.
“Our national pastime should be about promoting a healthy and active lifestyle, not a deadly and addictive product,” Myers said in a statement after the New York ordinance passed.
Beloved Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn died in 2015 of salivary gland cancer that he says came from a lifelong habit of dipping tobacco. He was 54. Curt Schilling, one of the best postseason pitchers in history and a current analyst for ESPN, has attributed his bout with throat cancer to 30 years of dipping.
Major League Baseball, trying to keep the peace with its players union — after all, they have a new agreement to hammer out — insists that the game is moving forward in its fight against smokeless tobacco. The union is busy educating its players about the harms of tobacco use and has informed them that it’s a no-go in some cities.
Still, MLB is continuing to push. The commissioner’s office this week said players who are found to be in violation of local laws are subject to punishment from the league, too. And Commissioner Rob Manfred already said he expects smokeless tobacco to be an issue at the bargaining table when the current agreement expires on Dec. 1. Players in the minor leagues, who are not covered by the MLBPA, have been prohibited from using tobacco products in ballparks since 1993.
All of it points to a day, maybe soon, when kids can watch their favorite ballplayers hit and not have to endure the spit.