By: Dick Durbin | As published in the Chicago Tribune
My feelings about tobacco took shape at the bedside of my father in November 1959. I was a sophomore in high school when lung cancer took his life. He was 53 and had smoked two packs of Camels a day.
As a member of Congress I first went up against the powerful tobacco lobby in 1987 and shocked myself and my colleagues by passing a bill banning smoking on airplanes on domestic flights of less than two hours. That measure turned out to be a tipping point. A series of local, state and federal laws followed, leading to restricting tobacco use on all flights, on trains and in hospitals, offices, restaurants and malls.
Despite all these victories, my battle against tobacco consistently struck out in one key area. For over 20 years I have been trying to get spit tobacco out of Major League Baseball.
Just as youth players wear their socks and sweatbands like the pros, or mimic the swing or windup of their favorite star, they are watching as baseball players slip a wad of tobacco in their cheek or under their lip. That sends a visual message, leading teenage boys to imitate this dangerous habit.
The numbers tell the story. While use of cigarettes and cigars among high school athletes declined from 30 percent to 18 percent between 2001 and 2013, use of smokeless tobacco increased by 10 percent in that population over the same period.
Among 8th grade students, the use of smokeless tobacco increased 14 percent between 2013 and 2015. Each year, nearly half a million kids age 12-17 use smokeless tobacco for the first time.
Tony Gwynn, the legendary San Diego hitter, was the most well-known baseball victim of salivary gland cancer caused by spit tobacco. Before his death in 2014, Gwynn attributed his oral cancer to his chewing tobacco use, “Of course it caused it … I always dipped on my right side,” he remarked. He and his family were honest about the cause of his death and reminded us of the real danger of this deadly habit.
Baseball owners such as Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox are outspoken opponents of spit tobacco. They remind me that all forms of tobacco are banned in the minors. Bobby Brown, a former Yankee and a medical doctor, became president of the American League. He joined the late Joe Garagiola, the former St. Louis Cardinal player and announcer, in leading the fight against spit tobacco. Despite all this opposition, the owners ran into a brick wall negotiating the issue with the players’ organization. I remember calling the players’ lead negotiator, Donald Fehr, many years ago. When I raised the danger of spit tobacco to the health of his players, he said: “It’s a negotiable item” and hung up.
The 2016 baseball season marks a long-anticipated breakthrough.
With the leadership of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, five major league cities (New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco) have enacted ordinances banning spit tobacco at their ballparks, and Toronto and Washington, D.C., are considering similar bans. When I met Tony Clark, the head of the Players Association, at a Major League Baseball event in Havana a few weeks ago, I reminded him that his players have to live in this new world. I don’t want to see any player embarrassed or fined. I just want a sport I love to stop promoting a deadly tobacco habit.
Democrat Dick Durbin is the senior U.S. senator from Illinois.