Televisions on Thursday will broadcast the usual iconic images of baseball’s opening day: fans cheering from the stands, umpires making close calls at the plate, and players in the thick of the game, spitting tobacco juice.
With smokeless tobacco use spiking among high school boys - a reported 36% increase since 2003 - public health officials are targeting their role models to set a healthy example, and calling for a ban on tobacco at major league ballparks.
Tobacco use was banned in baseball’s minor leagues in 1993. But a ban in the major leagues would have to be negotiated with the players union during collective bargaining - something Commissioner Bud Selig said Wednesday he intends to pursue as talks get under way for a new contract, effective in 2012.
Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, who occasionally chews tobacco during games, said he understands the reasoning behind a tobacco ban, but isn’t sure he wants to give up the right to chew.
“I get it,” Fielder said. “I understand what they’re saying. You don’t want kids watching you and doing it. So, I really do get it. But that’s a tough one. I’m sure we’ll talk about it, but (banning tobacco) is a big move. In the off-season, I don’t do it. Just during the season. My kids have never asked me about it. It’s not that it’s not important, but I just don’t know about (banning it).”
Use frowned upon
Major League Baseball discourages the use of tobacco. Clubs provide alternatives such as chewing gum and sunflower seeds, prohibit tobacco companies from providing free tobacco products to players in the clubhouse, and prohibit clubhouse employees from purchasing tobacco on behalf of players. The league also established the National Spit Tobacco Education Program in 1994 to try to curb player use.
Players say they take the health risks seriously. And the players union says it has worked to educate players about the risks of tobacco use, including oral cancer, esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, heart disease and gum disease.
But it appears unlikely the players union will agree to a ban.
“I think that would be difficult,” said veteran Milwaukee Brewer Craig Counsell, a member of the players union executive council who chews tobacco on occasion. “We’ve always championed the fact that we’re adults who can make their own choices.”
Top public health officials in 15 Major League Baseball cities - including Milwaukee - earlier this week joined the call to ban tobacco from baseball. In a letter to Selig and Michael Weiner, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the health officials wrote, “we know that baseball is important to civic life and that ballplayers are local heroes. They should provide positive role models and not associate themselves with a product that causes disease and death.”
The letter from city health officials followed a call in November by the chief executives of 10 major medical and public health groups, who wrote a letter to Selig and Weiner, seeking to ban use of all tobacco products, including smokeless tobacco, by players, coaches, managers and other team personnel at all major league ballparks.
“I am personally committed to the fight against smokeless tobacco in baseball,” Selig said Wednesday. “I am proud of our longtime ban on smokeless tobacco in the minor leagues.”
Kids are watching
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a nonprofit advocacy group, contends that too many kids pick up the cancer-causing habit from watching their idols chew and spit. “Baseball players are heroes to kids,” said spokesman Dan Cronin. “I learned how to kick dirt from Billy Martin.”
A spokesman for the players union declined to comment on whether baseball players should be expected to serve as role models of good health.
“We most certainly take the issue seriously and agree there are serious health risks involved with tobacco,” said spokesman Greg Bouris. “That’s why we do what we can to educate players.”
Tobacco use among baseball players has declined significantly over the last 20 years, according to Dan Halem, senior vice president and general counsel for Major League Baseball.
The hope in prohibiting tobacco in the minor leagues “is that players won’t use it anymore,” he said. “The tobacco cessation programs we run definitely are utilized.”
The NCAA and National Hockey League prohibit tobacco use.
By Karen Herzog and Tom Haudricourt of the Journal Sentinel