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Ridding Baseball of its Deadly Habit

Finally, serious steps are being taken to curtail baseball's deadly chewing tobacco habit — proposed legislation that would ban its use throughout California beginning next year.

The great need for a ban should be obvious. Chewing tobacco is highly addictive, slovenly, disgusting, repulsive. It causes cancer that can eat away at your throat, mouth, lips, tongue, your face and digestive system. It can kill. It's a serious threat to the health of Major League Baseball players and millions of others.

One-third of major leaguers use it, stuffing their mouths with foul tasting leaves or loose bits of tobacco, spewing out streams of muddy brown juice. It's used as well by many players at other levels, high school, college and minor leagues, professional and amateur, and by at least six million others who similarly risk their health — if not their lives.

Many of the other users, particularly the young, began using the stuff as a direct result of the example set by major leaguers.

The players convey “a strong message that it's safe because young, healthy, wealthy athletes are using it,” says Dr. Michael Ericksen, who helped conduct one of several federal studies showing the dangers of smokeless tobacco.

The figures on use by the young are startling. Eighty percent of users start before age 18, including about 15 percent of high school boys and 10 percent of middle-schoolers. Every year, more than one million teenagers and pre-teens try spit tobacco, and every year about 300,000 of them become regular users.

One of those who started young was Sean Marsee, who was voted “most valuable athlete” in his high school class in Ada, Oklahoma. He began using tobacco when he was 12.

By the time young Marsee reached high school, he was using 7 to 10 cans a week. By the time he reached his senior year, in 1983, he had developed a painful sore on his tongue that was diagnosed as malignant. Operations over next six months cut out parts of the tongue, then parts of his throat and jaw. But nothing could contain the cancers. Within a few months he was dead.

Although the example is extreme, it's not unique, and it accurately illustrates the dangers of smokeless tobacco. Cancer is but one of the consequences. Tobacco users also risk heart ailments, high blood pressure, ulcers, and severe gum and tooth diseases.

Using smokeless tobacco is even more dangerous than smoking. A pinch of it delivers to the body within seconds three to four times the amount of nicotine that a cigarette delivers to the lungs and stays in the system twice as long. Addiction develops more quickly, too.

Players are generally aware of the dangers, but that doesn't stop them from using spit tobacco-even the 60 percent who are estimated to already have developed possibly cancerous lesions in their mouths.

“There's just a lot of vacant time around here, a lot of nervous energy,” one player explained. “It's one way of dealing with it.”

A manager observed that “ballplayers get tense, and when you get tense, your mouth might get a little dry, and chewing helps.”

The bubble gum and sunflower seeds favored by some players could accomplish the same thing. But as one player who turned to tobacco instead noted, “You get hooked. It makes you light-headed, on your toes.”

It's a habit not easily broken. Just ask Curt Schilling about his attempt to quit while he was pitching for the Philadelphia Phillies a few years back: “I was waking up in the middle of the night — getting violently ill, throwing up, sweating, everything.”

Some players who've tried to quit have had to take time off because of the intense withdrawal pains they have suffered. Most users, however, don't even bother to try quitting. Most don't even want to try.

A few who have managed to shake the habit have joined with some other players, superstar Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs among them, in a nationwide campaign by the non-profit Oral Health America to educate players and the general public about the dangers of the habit.

Major League Baseball and the Baseball Players Association have joined in the campaign, Among other things, that has kept tobacco companies from continuing their years-long practice of stocking clubhouses with unlimited supplies of free spit tobacco. As television viewers undoubtedly have noticed, it also has caused players to limit their tobacco spitting while on camera. But the players' use of tobacco has declined only slightly.

Officially, use is banned in the minor leagues and in college and high school baseball. But even so, use ranges to up to at least 30 percent of the players.

What's obviously needed is an outright ban on the use of deadly smokeless tobacco in the major leagues as well — and strict enforcement of the ban there and throughout baseball, despite concerns that it would violate the rights of players. Their health and that of millions of other Americans is at stake.

Copyright©2015 Dick Meister, a San Francisco freelance columnist (

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