ROSS: Tony Gwynn and the case for e-cigarettes

Baseball Hall of Famer’s cancer death could help promote substitute for tobacco

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The premature death of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn has brought the issue of chewing tobacco use by Major League Baseball players — and its cancer-causing potential — into stark relief. As terribly tragic as his passing remains, it’s awakened today’s players to tobacco’s sobering health consequences while offering them an alternative that could significantly drive down the odds of their addictions becoming deadly.

What’s that alternative? Substituting low-risk e-cigarettes for the addictive but toxic tobacco.

The primary reason for switching is that anytime one can substitute a habit that offers significant harm reduction for one proven to be clearly dangerous, that’s a trade worth making.

It is estimated one of every four big leaguers suffer from addiction to chewing tobacco, while hundreds more have used it intermittently. While the risk of oral cancer (among other serious ailments) from “chaw” is far less than it is from smoking, the risk from e-cigarettes is likely to be zero. An added plus would be encouraging the many cigarette smokers in the big leagues to also make that lifesaving substitution. Cigarettes are known to kill one-half of smokers prematurely, and the Food and Drug Administration-approved methods to help smokers quit fail more than nine times out of 10.

Let me be clear. My organization, the American Council on Science and Health, strongly discourages anyone from taking up tobacco or nicotine in any form — period. However, there are 43 million smokers in America, and millions of oral tobacco users as well, many of whom are addicted. Legions of major-league baseball’s 750 players indulge in tobacco, and many of them are publicly conceding right now, clearly rattled by Gwynn’s death at the frighteningly early age of 54, that they are addicted and need to break the habit.

When the news of Gwynn’s passing hit major league clubhouses last week, it was met with fear: “Could it happen to me?” was on many minds. Certainly, true baseball fans would hate to witness a fate for them anything like the one that claimed “Mr. Padre,” the San Diego icon who was revered by players and fans alike.

E-cigarettes supply nicotine addicts — smokers and chewers — with a satisfying dose of their craved drug, but without the toxic chemicals. There is rapidly accumulating evidence that e-cigarettes are both safe and effective in helping smokers and chewers quit, and the vapor emitted contains nothing likely to harm innocent bystanders.

Despite the widespread assumption that Gwynn’s fatal cancer was the result of his chronic, prodigious chewing habit, the causality cannot be scientifically verified. (Nor could the 2012 death of the Beastie Boys’ musician Adam Yauch at age 47 to the same cancer. A Buddhist vegan, Yauch did not use tobacco). Even Gwynn himself attributed his disease to tobacco use — a common drive among cancer patients to find something to explain the inexplicable. Most often, cancer is a bolt from the blue, without specific cause — except when it comes to tobacco, since so many cancers (among other diseases) are, in fact, caused by tobacco use.

However, the overwhelming majority of “tobacco-caused” cancers are attributable to smoking cigarettes. Modern, refined smokeless tobacco products such as snus (which is neither chewed nor spit) have been shown not to cause oral cancer, but less-refined chewing tobacco has some increased risk. It should be noted that the medical literature categorically fails to support any link between cancer of the parotid salivary gland — the cause of Gwynn’s passing — and tobacco of any type, including “spit” or “chaw.”

E-cigarettes would reduce the risk of cancer and premature disability for all of baseball’s tobacco users. There’s another benefit: ridding the sport of the pervasive, disgusting spitting would enhance the enjoyment of the national pastime for everyone, especially women and girls who are particularly put off by the habit.

Everything possible should be done to assist major leaguers in combating the physical and emotional toll of nicotine addiction, especially when the drug is obtained from toxic tobacco. If that means calling upon e-cigarettes — a promising newcomer to the nicotine-delivery game — to make an appearance with it all on the line, that’s a safe opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Gilbert Ross, a physician, is medical and executive director of the American Council on Science and Health.

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