Farrell: Let's strike tobacco from sports

Opening Day of the baseball season brings the sounds of line drives smack off a new bat, the pop of fastballs in the catcher’s mitt, the youth-filled crowd cheering on their teams and, still all too often, the spit and splat of tobacco juice expelled from a player’s mouth. There’s something wrong with this picture.

In February, along with a national, state and local coalition of public-health and youth advocates, I introduced citywide legislation in San Francisco to eliminate the use of all tobacco products — including smokeless tobacco — at all athletic fields and venues in San Francisco, including AT&T Park, where our world champion Giants play.

The legislation sends a simple and powerful message to children, particularly as the Major League Baseball season is formally underway: baseball and tobacco don’t mix. You don’t need to chew to succeed. In my opinion, sports should be about promoting a healthy and active lifestyle, not a product that addicts, sickens and kills.

What players do on their own time in their personal lives is for them to decide, but baseball stadiums are workplaces and public places, and baseball games are seen by millions of kids.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Report found that nationally, 14.7 percent of high school boys and 8.8 percent of all high school students reported using smokeless products in 2013, with 3.3 percent of high school students reporting current use in San Francisco. And each year, more than 400,000 kids ages 12-17 use smokeless tobacco for the first time in the United States. This simply has to stop.

Public-health authorities, including the surgeon general and the National Cancer Institute, have found that smokeless-tobacco use leads to nicotine addiction. Even more deadly, according to the National Cancer Institute and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the use of smokeless tobacco causes oral, pancreatic, and esophageal cancer, and may also cause heart disease, gum disease and oral lesions other than cancer.

There is no need for a replay of recent tragedies including the death of famed major-leaguer Tony Gwynn, or Curt Schilling’s publicized fight with oral cancer as a result of his smokeless tobacco use. We should eject tobacco in all forms from baseball — the stadiums, the game, the mindset.

In particular, youth players are vulnerable to developing the deadly habit of using smokeless tobacco, given its strong association with playing sports, in particular with a legacy of decades of association with baseball.

Smokeless-tobacco products are heavily advertised and promoted, with the top five smokeless-tobacco companies in the U.S. more than tripling their total advertising and marketing expenditures from 1998 to 2011. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2011, these smokeless-tobacco companies spent $451.7 million to advertise and promote their products. Today, that number is even more.

In additional to sponsoring this legislation at the Board of Supervisors, I have joined the new Knock Tobacco Out of the Park campaign to continue to provide visibility to the issue of smokeless tobacco in baseball and beyond. The website (TobaccoFreeBaseball.org) is launching an exciting social-media tool where kids, parents and other baseball fans can create their own personalized baseball cards identifying themselves as members of the new Tobacco-Free All Star Team. All of the cards shared on social media using the hashtag #TobaccoFreeBaseball will be collected in a real-time gallery on the campaign website and delivered to MLB and the MLB Players Association.

MLB and its players union should prohibit all tobacco use at ballparks, as major public-health organizations have called for, but it has not done so. Since baseball has been unable to protect our kids from this health scourge, it’s time for others to lead, and I believe it’s up to cities and states across the country to act to do so.

If we want our young people growing up healthy and tobacco-free, then it’s time for everyone to come together for our children and strike tobacco out of our sports and culture — our children’s health depends on it.

Mark Farrell is a San Francisco supervisor.


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