The recent death of Tony Gwynn, by all accounts one of the classiest men in baseball and also a long-time user of smokeless tobacco, put the issue of smokeless tobacco use in the major leagues squarely on the radar of sports fans. Spokespeople for the league quickly made the point that MLB is adamantly against the use of smokeless tobacco at all levels of baseball, and blamed the players’ union for blocking a ban on its use in the major leagues.

I suspect even users of smokeless tobacco would acknowledge that it is a disgusting habit. Of course, if you follow baseball you know that smokeless tobacco has been a part of baseball for what seems like forever. But just because a problem has existed for a long time, does that mean we should not attempt to address the problem?  After all, smokeless tobacco is banned in the NCAA and in baseball’s minor leagues.

As I understand it, there are two main arguments on behalf of allowing adult major leaguers to use this product: first, it is a legal product, and second, there are no risks to others in the immediate area, unlike the second-hand smoke from cigarettes, for example.

Results of a recent survey indicated that the use of smokeless tobacco by major league players has dropped from 50% twenty years ago to 33% last year. That’s a good trend. Of course, we’re still left to wonder why any major leaguers would use the stuff, given the horrific consequences of the various health issues that have been linked to smokeless tobacco. Yet if we are to believe the survey, roughly one of every three major league players still uses a potentially deadly product that is grossly unappealing, and the players’ union has fought for their right to use that potentially deadly, grossly unappealing product. Go figure.

I have tried to determine if perhaps there is a competitive edge to be gained by the use of smokeless tobacco, or if players at least think they are gaining a competitive edge, even if they are not. Here is one former player’s take on that issue, and the consensus position is that smokeless tobacco provides no measureable competitive edge. Of course, players have reported that they feel more alert and more focused when using smokeless tobacco. That being said, there is no indication that smokeless tobacco will be included on the list of banned performance-enhancing substances any time soon, so any prohibition against its use will have to be the result of voluntary action by the players’ union in the next collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

The current MLB CBA will expire on December 1, 2016. Until at least that time, major league players will be able to use smokeless tobacco during games and during other activities at the ballpark, but not during television interviews.  That will give young baseball players a couple more years to take notice of how a number of their baseball role models use and embrace smokeless tobacco, a couple more years for the idea of using smokeless tobacco to take hold in young minds.

I have heard callers on sports and news talk shows claim that smokeless tobacco is getting a bad rap when it is blamed for Tony Gwynn’s death. I recommend this article for a balanced look at that question, and here is a quote from that article, written by Matt McCarthy:

“Whether or not chewing tobacco contributed to Tony Gwynn’s death, he died the way so many do who use the product, having his face chopped at by surgeons who tried in vain to remove the tumor. Smokeless tobacco hasn’t been firmly linked to the cancer that killed Tony Gwynn, but it’s still deadly, causing cancer of the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, mouth, and throat. It’s also thought to increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.”

What do you think? Is it time for the players’ union to formally declare that this hazardous substance has no place in major league baseball, whether legal or not?

Or, should the players’ union continue to take the view that adults should be allowed to use any legal product they want, and baseball players should not have to give up their right to use smokeless tobacco when other adults in our society are free to use this product?

I welcome your thoughts. Thanks.