Search the web for the phrase “tobacco and baseball” and you’ll find an association that dates back almost to the beginning of the sport. In the late 1800s, tobacco companies debuted baseball cards in cigarette packs. By the early 1900s, Bull Durham was advertising its chewing tobacco product on outfield fences.
Today, cigarette smoking is prohibited or restricted in all Major League parks. Still, players, coaches, and others use smokeless tobacco, often referred to as “chew” or “dip,” in virtually every stadium across the country. But tobacco that is “smokeless” is not “harmless.” It contains at least 28 carcinogens and causes oral, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer, along with serious health problems such as heart disease, gum disease, tooth decay, and mouth lesions.
The longstanding link between tobacco and baseball has led to tragic outcomes, for players and young fans alike. Baseball legend Babe Ruth died at age 53 of throat cancer after decades of dipping and chewing. Last summer, former Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling announced that he had been treated for oral cancer, which he attributed to three decades of chewing tobacco. Sadly, his news came shortly after the death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, at age 54, after a lengthy fight with salivary gland cancer. Gwynn, too, attributed his cancer to longtime smokeless tobacco use.
As physicians who have spent decades providing patient care and promoting public health, we believe it is time to make baseball tobacco free. Today, we are proud to join Mayor Marty Walsh as he announces a historic and lifesaving city ordinance to eliminate the use of smokeless and all other tobacco products at baseball venues and athletic fields. This includes Fenway Park.
Approval of the rule would allow Boston to join San Francisco as the first two US cities to protect the future health of players, coaches, and fans in this way. It could also inspire other jurisdictions to consider similar action.
Implementing this measure would also add to our city and state’s history of leadership in fighting tobacco. Massachusetts can boast one of the first tobacco prevention and cessation programs in the country (1993), a comprehensive smoke-free law (2004), and a series of tobacco tax increases to protect kids and fund public health. Although adequate funding for state tobacco control remains an ongoing challenge, these and other measures have dropped the Massachusetts youth smoking rate (10.7 percent in 2013) to nearly a third below the national average.
Despite this progress, the national rate of smokeless tobacco use in high school has stayed disturbingly steady. In the US, nearly 15 percent of high school boys currently use smokeless tobacco. More than half a million youth try smokeless tobacco for the first time. Smokeless tobacco companies annually spend $435 million on marketing. A key message of such advertising is that boys can’t be real men unless they chew. Also, scores of Major League Baseball players who chew or dip in front of fans provide invaluable free advertising for the industry. Impressionable kids stand ready to imitate their every move.
For too long, the tobacco industry has normalized and glamorized products that cause drug dependence, disability, and death. Leveraging the prestige and appeal of baseball has been an essential part of that strategy. It’s time for baseball to start a new chapter that reclaims tobacco-free parks as the new norm — and for Boston, home to so many sports achievements, to lead the way.
Dr. Howard K. Koh is the former US Assistant Secretary for Health and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Heath. Dr. Alan C. Woodward, a former president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, is chair of Tobacco Free Mass.