Padres legend Tony Gwynn's death brings tobacco concerns to the forefront

Tony Gwynn attributed his cancer to years of chewing tobacco. Gwynn’s initial cancerous growths were on the right side of his mouth in the same spot he said he dipped tobacco for 30 years.
By Cody Stavenhagen, Staff Writer Published: June 21, 2014
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Fifty-four.

That’s how old baseball great Tony Gwynn was when he died Monday.

Gwynn, who hit a career .338 in 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres, was also the baseball coach at his alma mater, San Diego State. He left behind a wife, a son, a daughter and so much more the public eye will never know. A life unfinished.

Gwynn succumbed to his four-year battle with salivary cancer. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but Gwynn attributed his cancer to years of chewing tobacco. Gwynn’s initial cancerous growths were on the right side of his mouth in the same spot he said he dipped tobacco for 30 years.

Gwynn is gone, but that number, 54, remains.

It’s an ominous figure for many such as Edmond Santa Fe coach Ryan Phillips, who played three seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization and said he’s never used smokeless tobacco. Phillips said his grandfather and uncle both died of cancer after years of dipping.

“I’m 30 now, so 54 really seems a lot younger than it might to someone who’s 16,” he said. “For guys my age that are still playing it or doing it, I think people will take a second look at it. If they quit or not, who knows, but it’ll definitely have them reevaluate themselves.”

A study from the Pro Baseball Athletic Trainers Society showed the use of tobacco among Major League Baseball players dropped from 50 percent to about 33 percent in the past 20 years.

But that 33 percent is enormous compared to a 2012 American Cancer Society study that charted tobacco use at 3.5 percent among Americans 12 and older.

Heritage Hall coach Breck Draper played at Oklahoma State and spent three years playing in independent leagues. He said the reason players use tobacco is a product of the game’s nature.

“More so in professional baseball there’s so much downtime,” Draper said. “You’re sitting around in the bullpen and someone says, ‘Hey, try this.’”

Oklahoma State coach Josh Holliday, who said he’s never used smokeless tobacco, wants the connection to end.

“It not something I wanted to be associated with or something I want to be associated with baseball,” Holliday said. “I’ve known many great, great men who struggled with it and tried to kick the addiction. From what I understand that’s a very hard thing to do.

“It’s dangerous, quite frankly it’s nasty and it’s expensive, too.”

A can of dip cost $3 on average, and a can a day costs about $1,100 per year, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.

Tobacco is banned in high school, college and the minors. In 2011, the MLB placed restrictions on tobacco, but it was not completely banned.