Legend’s death relights chewing tobacco debate


Ewen Roberts

Gwynn’s exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

By Angela Cooper-McCorkle, National University

Nolan Jirsa is eight years old. He doesn’t know that Tony Gwynn is dead at 54, or anything about the salivary gland cancer that killed the San Diego Padres icon.

What Nolan knows is baseball as it should be: played fair, for fun, surrounded by happy fans. Nolan plays for the Warriors, part of the North Everett Little League in Everett, Wash. He likes big hits and playing catch with the coach, his dad William Jirsa.

Jirsa, who named his son after one of the game’s greats, coaches the Warriors so his son has a chance at the most American of pastimes. He teaches Nolan and nine other boys and girls the basics: fielding, hitting, and not catching the ball with their faces or other sensitive areas.

And now, he’s teaching Nolan another lesson: not to use tobacco.

Chewing tobacco may seem like a relic of decades past, hardly more than a catchy refrain on last year’s Blake Shelton hit, “Boys ’Round Here.” But it was only two years ago that Major League Baseball, prohibited players from chewing in sight of fans. Even in the minor leagues where the product is prohibited altogether, the habit persists among many players, including teens.

“There have been many campaigns on the issue over the years and it seems you don’t see nearly the amount of pro players chewing,” says Bob Harns, president of North Everett Little League and grandparent of two players.
But Harns adds that all four of the league’s umpires do use chewing tobacco.

Annual sales of smokeless tobacco exceed $2.5 billion, and smokeless tobacco marketers spend more than $450 million a year promoting the product. The advertising seems successful. Use was up more than five percent last year.

Easy access and bans on public smoking also encourage smokeless tobacco sales. Costco sells 44 varieties online. Ubiquitous in corner stores, a wide variety of cans and pouches are stocked so that anyone taller than the counter— including children like Nolan— can easily see the colorful packages.

The trend is expensive. Tobacco use costs America more than $289 billion annually in healthcare and missed work. And chewing tobacco causes oral cancer, esophageal cancer and pancreatic cancer. Despite the risks, nine million Americans use the products, including 11 percent of male high school students, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“I would like to see MLB move forward with trying to restrict tobacco use on TV. I don’t know if the players union would agree with fining players for tobacco on the field, but something needs to happen,” Jirsa says.

In the meantime, Jirsa just hopes Nolan will not be among the one in 10 boys who picks up the habit before getting through high school.