May. 26 2016
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Baseball legend Tony Gwynn was one of the game’s most respected figures on and off the field. His death in 2014 after a long battle with cancer remains a lesson to all about the horrible dangers of smokeless tobacco use.
The wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his family this week provides another public service. It is a powerful reminder of how the tobacco industry has long targeted kids, athletes, African Americans and other groups with shameful marketing tactics that lured many into a deadly addiction. Tony Gwynn’s death and this lawsuit provide a clarion call to Major League Baseball (MLB) and the MLB Players Association to take tobacco out of the game once and for all. It’s time for baseball to stand up to tobacco and stand up for kids.
The defendants in the lawsuit include Altria Group Inc. (formerly Philip Morris) and its U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company subsidiary, manufacturer of the Skoal brand the lawsuit says Gwynn used.
The lawsuit details how, at 17, Gwynn began regularly using smokeless tobacco, or dipping, while a freshman ballplayer at San Diego State University and how he received “countless” free samples of smokeless tobacco during his college years, leading to a decades-long addiction. It describes how “throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Defendants’ smokeless tobacco campaigns also targeted college students and athletes through a coordinated nationwide network of on-campus marketing programs.” From 1977 to 1981, while Gwynn was in college, the industry recruited student contractors who promoted smokeless tobacco products to fellow students and athletes, distributed free samples and even sponsored an intramural softball team named the “Skoal Brothers” at San Diego State, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also details industry marketing tactics that linked smokeless tobacco use and sports, especially baseball. These include advertising and marketing campaigns using professional sports figures, advertising during network television broadcasts of major sporting events and placing ads in national sports magazines. “Defendants used professional sports figures to spread the lie that the use of these products was consistent with good health and fitness, and that they are a healthy alternative to smoking,” the lawsuit states.
As the lawsuit argues, Gwynn himself became an “unwitting agent” in the industry’s marketing schemes: “Defendants used Tony’s addiction to reach the legions of fans, athletes, spectators and children who viewed him with admiration and respect, just as the Defendants’ sports spokesmen during Tony’s youth led him to try, use and become addicted to their dangerous products.”
Unfortunately, some of these industry tactics continue today. Smokeless tobacco brands including Skoal and Grizzly continue to advertise in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, often with the message that you can’t be a real man without smokeless tobacco.
The association between smokeless tobacco and sports continues to harm young people. A September 2015 CDC report found that high school athletes use smokeless tobacco at nearly twice the rate of non-athletes, and smokeless tobacco use among athletes increased 11 percent from 2001 to 2013. Among male high school athletes, smokeless tobacco use was particularly alarming at 17.4 percent in 2013.
To set the right example for young fans and protect the health of players, MLB and the Players Association should agree to a complete prohibition on smokeless tobacco use in all major league stadiums as part of the new collective bargaining agreement being negotiated this year, as 34 leading public health and medical groups have urged them to do. Unfortunately the Players Association has yet to agree. In the meantime, Major League cities and states should continue to prohibit all tobacco use at sports venues, including baseball stadiums, as San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and the state of California have already done. Once all these laws are implemented, one-third of the 30 Major League stadiums will be tobacco-free. Washington, D.C., Toronto and the state of Minnesota are considering similar measures.
If the memory of Tony Gwynn’s life and death can make the game he loved tobacco-free and set the right example for future generations, it will be a tremendous and fitting legacy.