Tony Gwynn was a beloved figure in Major League Baseball. One of the best hitters in the game suffered from salivary gland cancer before losing his cancer battle at 54 years old. A physician weighs in on the dangers of smokeless tobacco — including how to speak to your kids about safer alternatives to chewing tobacco.
Photo credit: Matthew Hynes / WENN

The death of a beloved sports figure

Tony Gwynn grew up in Long Beach, California, but he became a fixture in the San Diego sports community when he set foot on the San Diego State campus. Gwynn played baseball and basketball for the Aztecs before being drafted by both the San Diego Padres — a Major League Baseball team — and the San Diego Clippers — a National Basketball League team now based in Los Angeles. He chose baseball and played his entire career with the Padres, winning eight batting titles and endearing himself to a baseball community who had never had a star stay in their city for his entire career. After retiring, Gwynn dabbled in sports broadcasting before returning to San Diego State to coach the college baseball team.

Gwynn was one of the first players to study his batting form extensively, using video tape, and his dedication showed on the field. Off the field, he exuded confidence with humility instead of arrogance. He married Alicia Gwynn and raised a son and daughter with her, and he was grandfather to three grandchildren. Tony Gwynn's death at 54 years of age came after a multi-year battle with salivary gland cancer, including surgeries in 2010 and 2012. Gwynn had a smokeless tobacco habit, one he acquired in 1981 when he started playing minor league baseball.

Baseball and smokeless tobacco

The habit is so ingrained in the baseball culture that young kids simulate the chewing habit with gum tucked in their lips, spitting saliva onto the dugout floor.

Baseball watchers are accustomed to the sight of their favorite players spitting onto the ground — while they're waiting on bases, getting into position in the batter's box or biding time in the dugout. Some players gnaw on sunflower seeds and spit out the shells and others tuck wads of gum into their cheeks, but many players have something more dangerous lurking in their mouths. Smokeless tobacco, also called dip, chewing tobacco or chew, has been a staple in the baseball community for years.

Major League Baseball players can be seen spitting streams of tobacco juice onto the field, the dark spit visible even on TV cameras. The habit is so ingrained in the baseball culture that young kids simulate the chewing habit with gum tucked in their lips, spitting saliva onto the dugout floor. Tweens and teens are at risk for smokeless tobacco experimentation, especially when their baseball idols aren't hiding or denying their habit.

The dangers of smokeless tobacco

Cigarettes have been targeted for years for their carcinogenic properties, but the dangers of smokeless tobacco are just as real. Matthew W. Schwartz, M.D., is a radiation oncologist at the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada. Dr. Schwartz weighs in on the potential consequences of chewing tobacco. When asked about the primary health concerns that come with using smokeless tobacco, he named six:

  • An increased risk of multiple cancers including mouth, tongue, esophagus, stomach, pancreatic, gum, cheek and throat cancer.
  • Nicotine addiction which can lead to smoking.
  • Increased risk of cavities and tooth decay.
  • Stained teeth and bad breath.
  • Sores in the mouth which can become cancer.
  • Possible increase in risk of heart attacks or stroke.

Talking to tweens about tobacco use

As with other risky behavior, talking to kids about tobacco use is important — even if parents think tweens know the dangers of cigarettes and other types of tobacco. Aru Panwar, M.D., is a surgeon at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who specializes in the care of patients with head and neck cancer. He recommends parents take a multi-pronged approach to talking about the dangers of a smokeless tobacco habit. In addition to being a tobacco-free role model, talking candidly with medical professionals about addiction resources and asking kids their own views on tobacco, Dr. Panwar encourages parents to truly understand and discuss the power of social pressure.

Parents need to recognize the peer pressure or situational pressure that kids and young adults may face such as watching that great ball player who uses tobacco all the time.

He says, "Parents need to recognize the peer pressure or situational pressure that kids and young adults may face such as watching that great ball player who uses tobacco all the time. Parents will need to have open communication with their children and help affirm positive traits that relate to success and 'being cool' such as the spirit of competition, athletic ability and teamwork versus just appearances. They need to help children disconnect the professional success of sporting idols from other personality traits like chewing tobacco."

Tony Gwynn's legacy

Dr. Panwar hopes the death of the baseball legend will help spread knowledge about the dangers of smokeless tobacco. He says, "Mr. Gwynn’s life and skill on the field, undoubtedly, has been a source of inspiration to scores of young men and women. In his passing, he may do another service by bringing the focus and our attention to the dangers of oral tobacco use and its association with oral cancer."

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