By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
In what health advocates are calling a “substantial step forward,” the Major League Baseball Players Association says tobacco use is at least a topic on the table during labor talks and that “a sincere effort will be made to address the use of smokeless tobacco products.”
“This subject has been raised in our ongoing round of collective bargaining with Major League Baseball, and those talks will continue,” wrote Michael Weiner, MLBPA executive director, in a letter to James Winkler late last month.
Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist Church, is chairman of Faith United Against Tobacco, which had written Weiner on May 30 asking the Association to agree with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to a ban on all tobacco use on the field and in the dugout. The letter followed a similar appeal from more than a dozen health advocates from across the nation in March. The FUAT plea was signed by 25 faith leaders including representatives of Islam, Judaism, and the Sikh religion as well as a number of evangelical Christians, all attesting to the impact that tobacco has on families and communities.
“This is a product that maims and kills those who use it,” the letter said, highlighting the story of Oklahoma high school track star Sean Marsee who became addicted to smokeless tobacco at age 12 and was dead by 19. Faith leaders cited the fact that since 2003, there has been an alarming 36 percent increase in the use of smokeless tobacco by high school boys — “proof positive that as smoking becomes less ‘cool,’ boys are turning to smokeless tobacco.”
Weiner said in response, “I assure you that your concerns about increased use by adolescent boys, and similar concerns expressed to us by others, have been and will continue to be shared with the players.”
He said the players approach the issue with a “clear and realistic understanding of the serious health risks associated with use of these products” since the Players Association has long discouraged its members from using smokeless tobacco.
“…We have worked for years with Major League Baseball to educate players on this score,” his letter said.
Nonetheless, the May letter from faith leaders challenged the MLBPA on its earlier stance that smokeless tobacco use should be allowed because it is a legal product used by adults.
“By that logic, players should be able to freely drink and smoke on the field. Use of these legal substances was banned for the same reason we ask that smokeless tobacco be banned … the health of the players and the example it sets for youth,” Faith United Against Tobacco wrote.
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, said the response from Weiner is encouraging and that faith and health leaders should keep the pressure on and not let the issue get lost amid negotiations over salary caps, draft issues, realignment or playoffs.
“Tobacco has been banned in baseball’s minor leagues since 1993. It’s high time Major League Baseball took a stand against this substance that causes nicotine addiction, oral and pancreatic cancer, periodontal disease and more,” the Rev. Creech said, “especially since athletes have such a huge influence on their young fans.”
According to Gregory Connolly, a dentist and Harvard University professor of public health, about a third of Major League Baseball players report using smokeless tobacco, the vast majority of which want to quit and seek assistance to do so.
In testimony before the Committee on Health and the Environment on the Public Health Effects of Smokeless Tobacco last year, Connolly said there can be “no doubt that public use by MLB players directly contributes to youth smokeless tobacco use in the U.S.” He said a study of televised use of the product during World Series games from 1988 to 2005 revealed, on average, nine minutes per game and that the televised value of just one game is worth “millions of dollars in free advertising reaching millions of adolescents.
“Extrapolate the advertising over a season; the free advertising value to the manufacturers of smokeless tobacco is probably worth more than the combined salaries of all MLB players,” Connolly said.
He said that while public use of smokeless tobacco is confined to fewer athletes today than 20 years ago, those players are more heavily using the product and attract more than their share of TV coverage.
“Based on these observations, I feel strongly that the vast majority of professional athletes do not want to use these products on the field, particularly in front of children, but are addicted and a few unwittingly may believe it makes them more appealing on camera,” Connolly testified. “The majority of players do not use the product and the problem is now among a handful of players that only a complete ban could address.”
The Major League Baseball contract currently being negotiated will take effect in 2012 and likely be in place for five seasons, making the issue an urgent one.
To find out more and let you voice be heard, log on to www.tobaccofreebaseball.org/