Despite Cancer, Butler Against Smokeless Tobacco Ban

Once again, our elected representatives have decided there’s something rotten in Major League Baseball, and they want to do something about it. On February 15, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) wrote an open letter to Bud Selig and MLBPA head Michael Weiner calling for a ban on chewing tobacco:

The use of smokeless tobacco by baseball players undermines the positive image of the sport and sends a dangerous message to young fans, who may be influenced by the players they look up to as role models.

The Senators noted that smokeless tobacco (or “spit tobacco,” as crusader Joe Garagiola, Sr. prefers to call it) has been banned in the minors since 1993, and called for a ban to be inserted into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, before the current one expires in December. Their call for prohibition comes shortly after Tony Gwynn‘s cancer diagnosis and Stephen Strasburg‘s resolution to quit dipping, which inspired Craig Calcaterra to issue a declare his wish that it be banned. (Could it be that Dick Durbin reads HardballTalk?)

But Durbin and Lautenberg would need players who are voluntarily willing to agree, for the first time ever, to ban a substance that is neither illegal nor a performance-enhancer. And they may find that more difficult than they imagine, even among players whom tobacco has hurt the most. After having been a heavy tobacco chewer in his early career, Brett Butler was diagnosed with oral cancer in 1996. “I probably went through a can every 2 or 3 days,” he told me. “I was getting it straight from the factory when I got to the majors.” He has been outspoken about the possible harms of chewing tobacco, but he has no sympathy for a ban. “I’ve used it as a platform to promote not using chewing tobacco,” he says. “But at the major league level I think we should be free to do what we want.”

The most tireless advocate against chewing tobacco in baseball has been Garagiola, who likely would prefer that it simply be illegal. He chairs NSTEP, the National Spit Tobacco Education Program, which works with baseball players from Little League to the Major Leagues to educate them about the harms of chewing tobacco. In April 2010, Garagiola testified in support of a ban to Henry Waxman’s Congressional Energy & Commerce Committee. Waxman has long been interested in oversight on baseball; in 2008, he held steroid hearings on the Mitchell Report in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. So he was a sympathetic ear. As Garagiola testified:

I would like to see the Major League players agree to the terms of the Minor League Tobacco Policy, which bans Club personnel from using and possessing tobacco products in ballparks and during team travel… in the bigger picture, this is an uphill battle because smokeless tobacco is not just a baseball problem; it is a problem for all of society.

Brett Butler got diagnosed with cancer when he was 38, a year after hitting .300 and leading the Dodgers to a division championship in the strike-shortened 1995 season. He hit .265 through the first month of 1996 and had a tonsillectomy, during which time, the L.A. Times wrote, doctors found “a tumor the size of a large plum.” Four months of hell followed: “Thirty-two rounds of radiation. They cut me from my earlobes down to my clavicle, took out two of my lymph nodes, I went from 162 pounds to 142 pounds, and the doctor said I wouldn’t play again,” he told me. “You think you’re going to die. When you get cancer, automatically you think you’re going to die.” He came back to the field that September and played one more season with the Dodgers, then retired to spend more time with his family.

Butler is a devout Christian and conservative, and he rarely minces his words. He’s open about the effects tobacco had on his body: “It almost ate my gums away at the bottom… you could see down almost to the root of my tooth. I had to have a transplant of tissue down there when I quit.” The radiation treatments destroyed his saliva glands, so Major League Baseball allowed him to carry bottled water out to center field with him in 1996. But his opposition to a ban is visceral. But he compares the choice to dip tobacco to the choice to drink to alcoholism or eat to obesity, saying he strongly believes in personal choice and personal responsibility; otherwise, he said, “you have government running everything.” The current manager of the Triple-A Reno Aces, Butler is very consistent: he doesn’t like the minor league tobacco ban, either.

I don’t agree with all of his beliefs, but the civil libertarian in me agrees with his opposition to a major league tobacco ban. Chewing tobacco is a legal substance, is not a performance-enhancing drug, and has no real second-hand side effects other than disgusting spit. Baseball’s drug policy currently has three categories of banned substances: drugs of abuse (like cocaine), performance-enhancing drugs (like anabolic steroids), and stimulants (like amphetamines). Tobacco is extraordinarily unhealthy, but it isn’t any of the above. (It is a stimulant, but it’s a legal one, like caffeine.)

It’s also on the decline, thanks to the minor league ban, MLB claims. But no decline is permanent, and the ban is an attempt to address a real public health issue. Over the same time span as the minor league ban, teenage tobacco use had a relative peak in 1997 and then fell for a decade. But a recent study by the University of Michigan found that smoking has begun to rise again in the past year, and smokeless tobacco usage by youth has been rising for the past several years. This is an unfortunate trend if it continues, and it shouldn’t be ignored. Nor should the effects of baseball players as role models, as Brett Butler says: “You’ve got a lot of players in every aspect of athletics, saying I don’t want to be a role model. Well, the bottom line is, you are.”

A smokeless tobacco ban might indeed help these players’ health, and it might even have an influence on the health of young baseball fans who may have been inspired to dip because their favorite players did. But you could make the same arguments for an alcohol ban. Even the best-intentioned policy has unintended consequences, as this country learned from its previous attempt at an alcohol ban — in this case, one of the most salient consequences is that the players, even nonsmoking cancer survivors among them, would reject such a ban en masse. There’s simply no chance that the Players Association would ever agree to a tobacco ban, and as long as tobacco is a legal substance that does not affect how well someone plays baseball, a tobacco ban is simply not something I can support.

I’m glad the Senators are baseball fans. I hope they’ll just go back to rooting for the home team.



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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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Joe
Guest
Joe

“Has no real second-hand side effects other than disgusting spit.”

Not true. As you later point out, players are role models whether they like it or not.

hunterfan
Guest
hunterfan

Yes! Let’s blame athletes for our childrens’ poor choices rather than the parents!

phoenix2042
Guest
phoenix2042

that’s why i hate the argument that violent video games and movies make kids violent. if you are worried about a child watching violent movies or playing violent games, why do you let your child do it and then blame the company for making it? you buy the game for the kid and then cry because the kid plays the game. i mean honestly, don’t buy it if you don’t agree with it, instead of telling the company not to make it. you are in charge of your kids, the video game company is not.

side note: “you” is the parent, not you, hunterfan!

Justin Bailey
Guest
Justin Bailey

I love it when someone thinks that they can contribute to the discussion of an extremely complex, multifaceted problem by offering an excruciatingly simplistic perspective.

Fangraphs Man
Member

Plus 100 if possible.

Fangraphs Man
Member

@Justin The thing is, he’s right. Don’t look up to athletes, they will usually let you down. A good parent tells their kids to not look up to players. Imagine this happens:
BREAKING NEWS: Gilbert Arenas had a gun in locker room
6 year old kid: Guns are cool, and Arenas uses it. I’m gonna shoot someone!!

Who’s fault is it? The raisers of the kid, who allowed him to be influenced. His comment is a completely valid point.

Jon
Guest
Jon

@spaldingballs

Yes, because little Gallant always listens to his parents, and never, say, to Nathan down the street, who has a really cool bb gun and sneaks his Dad’s chew after school while his parents are out.

And Nathan, well, forget him. He deserves whatever dissipated life his parents’ example leads him to.

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