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Medical Experts Hope New MLB Smokeless Tobacco Rules Lower Teen, Young Adult Use

Published: Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 18:12

Nick Swisher

Christopher Pasatieri, Newsday

New York Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher is among a large number of smokeless tobacco users in Major League Baseball.

A move by Major League Baseball to limit smokeless tobacco has medical experts hopeful that chew use among high schoolers and young adults will begin to show declines.

MLB's move is seen by anti-tobacco advocates as long overdue. The NCAA, and minor leagues, already ban tobacco use on the field.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found 15 percent of male high school students and 2 percent of female high school students used smokeless tobacco.

And some of those kids who start, according to Dr. Richard Mechstroth, a dentist and professor at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, are those who want to emulate players or fall victim to advertising.

Meckstroth, who works with a division of tobacco prevention in West Virginia where he goes to schools and minor leagues to raise awareness of the dangers, notes that even bubble gum like Big League Chew is packaged to look like tobacco, allowing children to imitate their role models.

"In little league games, they have that in the concessions stands," Meckstroth said. "That's the sort of thing that irritates me."

Of 1.5 million people using smokeless tobacco, nearly half of the new users were under age 18 when they first used it, according to a 2009 study by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA).

Players, coaches and managers recently signed the new Major League Baseball Labor Agreement, stating they would conceal their smokeless tobacco usage around fans, in interviews and in club appearances. They also cannot carry tobacco products on them. This is all in an effort to separate chewing tobacco from the game and educate the public on the dangers it poses to one's health.

However, some baseball purists, such as Sisco Flores, believe it will take a lot more to take chewing out of the game entirely.

Flores, a 20-year-old journalism student at ASU, said he first tried smokeless tobacco when he was 15. He cites baseball culture, and his upbringing in Buckeye, as reasons for his young introduction to tobacco.

"I'm from the country and I play baseball. The reason I do chew tobacco is because it became a norm in baseball," he said. "Everybody did it so I did it, too. It turned out that I kind of liked the feeling after a while."

Once he was a senior in high school, Flores started to chew on a regular basis and would discretely use it every time he hit the field.

"It calms you down," he said. "You focus and it becomes a habit while you play. It's really weird."

Floresbelieves there are plenty of benefits to using smokeless tobacco while playing. He said he recalls watching a news story when he was younger where Atlanta Braves's Chipper Jones cited quitting smokeless tobacco as the reason for a slump in his performance. As Flores recalls it, once Jones started up again, he was back on his game.

"Baseball is the one sport where it's not fast moving, so you're thinking most of the game. I think that's why a lot of the mistakes happen," Flores said. "When you're chewing on tobacco, you focus a lot more and you don't get as tired," he said.

Floresbelieves smokeless tobacco is engrained in baseball because it is a tradition that is passed down by other players. He said it adds to a player's rugged persona and that it has a lot to do with players exerting their masculinity.

Still, Mechstroth said he thinks the new MLB labor deal is a step in the right direction, "but kids are going to experiment and do what they want."

"Maybe if they stop seeing their favorite players use it, they won't be as inclined to try it," he said.

Dr. Meckstroth said most people, especially teens, don't think about the health risks associated with smokeless tobacco, such as cancer, cavities, gum disease, heart disease and tooth decay.

"You don't feel usually the impact until years later after you're well addicted. It's not like you drive a car, get into an accident and immediately have a complication," he said.  "Young people don't have a vision of impact down the road, they just live for the moment."

The Players Association labor agreement will go in effect in 2012.

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