Almost 40 percent of professional baseball players use chew or spit tobacco. That's enough to have prompted Major League Baseball to form a three-year partnership in April with the National Spit Tobacco Education Program, a group fronted by baseball legends such as Joe Garagiola, Hank Aaron, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, and Bill Tuttle, in order to counter tobacco's influence on young sports fans.
Then on May 7, Los Angeles Dodger Brett Butler announced he has squamous cell carcinoma, a form of throat cancer heavily linked to spit tobacco. Initially, Butler's personal physician, Bob Gadlage, implied the cancer may have been caused by Butler's use of chew. That story changed rapidly, perhaps because of the hot- button nature of the tobacco issue. The next day, Gadlage suggested Butler's cancer was caused by his parents' secondhand smoke. Then on May 15, Butler said another doctor blamed the cancer on Butler's 1989 bout with the Epstin-Barr virus.
Butler has good reason to avoid a connection with tobacco use, having attested in the past to the negative effect it has on youngsters. He claims he quit chewing tobacco 15 years ago, after a 10-year-old boy told him he used chew because Butler did. "You'll never see me dip again," he reportedly told the boy.
But a doctor who examined the center fielder in the past told Mother Jones that Butler was using chew as recently as 1988. On the day of Butler's announcement, ESPN reported on its Web site that he chewed during a 1988-90 stint with the San Francisco Giants. And on May 10, sports writer Frank Dascenzo of the Durham, N.C., Herald-Sun reminisced about a meeting with Butler in June 1988: "In a jovial mood, Butler pulled a pouch out of his rear pocket and stuck some tobacco in his mouth." (Dascenzo now says he may have been mistaken.)
Butler could not be reached for comment, but his wife, Eveline, insists Butler last used tobacco in 1982. Still, she says they are pleased the tragedy might incite others to reconsider chewing. "We want to project the image that children shouldn't do it," she says. "The tobacco industry needs to be more careful on who they market their products to."
But the industry claims its relationship with baseball has nothing to do with addiction. Earlier this year, U.S. Tobacco, the leader in the smokeless tobacco industry, challenged the premise that sports stars influence children, claiming in a press release: "Use of smokeless tobacco products by minors results primarily from the influence of family and friends, not the influence of professional athletes."
NSTEP's Garagiola doesn't buy it. "If you have a hero, you want to do everything he does. You want to hold the bat like he does, you want to throw like he does, you want to run like he does. And if he uses spit tobacco, chances are you will emulate him."
But NSTEP's message goes beyond baseball. The group is also getting out the word that spit tobacco is not a safe alternative to cigarettes, undermining the industry's recent efforts to capitalize on anti-smoking sentiments. (For example, a recent Skoal ad has the hook, "When You Can't Smoke.")
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration's proposed crackdown on tobacco use by children threatens to prohibit brand name sponsorship of sporting events. This rule would affect more than just baseball; it would have a major impact, for example, on spit tobacco's relationship to auto racing. UST, a prominent sponsor of auto racing, has "sampling" booths at many events. The car UST sponsors, the Skoal Bandit, is in essence a moving billboard.
Garagiola's experience at a recent Sports Car Club of America race at Phoenix International Raceway highlights how hard it will be to sever the ties between sports and tobacco. When Garagiola put up an NSTEP poster on the grounds, track officials told him to remove it.
"They said," recalls Garagiola, "it was offensive to the fans."