Davey Johnson, not setting a great example for the kids. Photographer: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images
Davey Johnson, not setting a great example for the kids. Photographer: Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

The death of legendary hitter Tony Gwynn from salivary gland cancer has reignited the debate over whether Major League Baseball should ban smokeless tobacco.

But should it? It’s easy to blame the loss of a star on a filthy, addictive and deadly habit. We all know how dangerous tobacco is, and the U.S. has cut smoking rates remarkably through lawsuits against Big Tobacco, public-service campaigns, bans in public places and restrictions on advertising.

Baseball has been no exception: Cigarettes are barred from Major League dugouts, and chewing tobacco does have some restrictions. The latest collective bargaining agreement prohibits players from carrying tobacco tins and packages in the ballpark, and from chewing during interviews and team appearances. Teams can no longer provide players with snuff, chew or cigars. The new rules were far from the full ban anti-tobacco advocates had hoped for -- rather than protecting players themselves, the focus is on keeping young fans from seeing their idols engage in the unhealthy habit.

Since Gwynn’s death on Monday, at the age of 54, renewed calls to ban smokeless tobacco have focused more on player health than public messaging, using him as a prime example of an otherwise healthy athlete whose life was tragically cut short by a disease caused by a bad habit. This may not be strictly true: scientists have never found a conclusive link between chewing tobacco and the obscure cancer that killed Gwynn, though that doesn’t mean there isn't one.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about cause of parotid cancer,” said Loren Mell, chief of the head and neck radiation medicine service at the Moores Cancer Center in San Diego and a member of the team that treated Gwynn. “In the case of parotid cancers, there’s not a single, unified cause that’s identified. Part of that has to do with their rarity.”

Gwynn may have been on shaky ground when he insisted that chewing caused his disease. But so is the American Council on Science and Health, which put out a statement headlined: "RIP Tony Gwynn, a victim of parotid gland cancer. NOT due to snuff or dip, however." As Mother Jones pointed out last year, the ACSH's research is funded by corporations including Altria -- the parent company of Philip Morris USA and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company. The statement even includes a shameless plug for snus, a type of smokeless tobacco, from one of the group's physicians, Gil Ross: "It would be a shame if a smoker seeking a way out of his or her deadly addiction was scared off snus because of fear induced by Mr. Gwynn’s unrelated disease.”

This ignores, of course, that chew and snuff have been definitively linked to plenty of other nasty diseases, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus and pancreas, as well as heart and gum disease and leukoplakia, which forms disgusting white patches in the mouth.

It's hard to be shocked by anything involving the tobacco companies, but what's really bewildering is the MLB Players’ Association's continued role in enabling them. Minor league baseball banned smokeless tobacco in 1993 and levies hefty fines for those caught chewing; but those players are not unionized and thus presented little roadblock. The MLBPA, meanwhile, uses its position as the most powerful union in all of sports -- and, arguably, the country -- to fight a losing battle to retain their players’ right to chew.

To contact the writer of this article: Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.