Chew on This

When the 2011 Major League Baseball season began on April 1, about one third of the players on the field enjoyed an addictive substance that not only could give them cancer but would not be permitted at any other level of organized baseball.

The substance? Smokeless tobacco, which can cause nicotine addiction, oral and pancreatic cancer and periodontal disease. Banned in the minors since 1993, smokeless tobacco is still tolerated by Major League Baseball and the players union.

For a long time in baseball, chewing tobacco was almost mandatory. Sticking a wad of tobacco leaves between the cheek and gum and grinding it to release the nicotine and flavour was the preferred method for more than a century. In recent years, however, moist snuff, a finely ground tobacco that's also wadded between the cheek and gum, has taken over in popularity. Marketed in brightly coloured packages targeted especially at young males, it's just as addictive and potentially harmful.

When Gregory Connolly, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health, testified before a US committee on the effects of smokeless tobacco last April, he was especially concerned about the influence baseball stars had on young males. He showed that during a World Series, for example, players using snuff appeared on TV for an average of nine minutes a game. He then presented social media comments from young men lauding the use of “dip” or “chew” as a result.

It seems inevitable a ban is in the near future. The news in October 2010 that Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn had parotid cancer in his salivary glands might help propel action. “I'm thinking it's related to dipping,” admitted Gwynn.

Smoking was banned in the dugouts of MLB games in the 1970s. It's time to snuff out its smokeless counterpart as well.

Paul McLaughlin has followed sports as a writer, broadcaster and playwright for many years.