By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Many people, including teenagers, are probably familiar with the Rick Bender story by now. Bender, nicknamed the “Man Without a Face,” has appeared in a couple of television spots about the dangers of “smokeless tobacco.” A former professional baseball player, he lost half his tongue and lower jaw to oral cancer after more than a decade of “spit tobacco” use, beginning when he was 12 years old.
Although the dangers of cigarette smoking had been well documented for years by then, the dangers of smokeless tobacco, including snuff and chew, were less well known or even downplayed. Although Bender wanted nothing to do with cigarettes, there was enormous peer pressure to use snuff and chewing tobacco. Additionally, there were television ads of professional players endorsing various brands of smokeless tobacco, with the implication that “a pinch instead of a puff” was a safe alternative to smoking.
Bender now tours the country to dispel that myth, sharing his story of pain and suffering, his disfigured face a visible reminder of the dangers of snuff and chewing tobacco.
Yet, there were still the macho images on televised ball games, images of players – popular athletes, heroes to millions of young people – dipping snuff and popping wads of tobacco in their mouths in the dugout, or chewing wads out on the field and spitting between pitches, all while playing America’s favorite pastime (in all fairness, however, this does not include EVERY player).
So, even with the disturbing image of Bender’s face, there has still been the multiple images of player after player dipping, chewing and spitting, in game after game, images that make dipping and chewing look so awesomely “cool.”
All that is about to change with the new baseball season, thanks to the efforts of thousands of supporters behind the “Knock Tobacco Out of the Park Campaign,” a national coalition of over 200 public health groups, notable baseball figures, faith leaders, young ball players and their leagues, and many others.
Two days before Thanksgiving, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Player’s Association negotiated a new five-year contract restricting smokeless tobacco use on and off the playing field. The Nov. 22 announcement was the first time smokeless tobacco use has ever been addressed in professional baseball. The restrictions become effective when the new contract begins in 2012, and violators will be subject to discipline.
Some of the restrictions include prohibiting big league players, coaches and managers from bringing tobacco or tobacco products onto the playing field, either in their pockets or on their person, thus eliminating camera shots of the snuff can in the back pocket and the chunks of chew going into mouths in the dugout. Players will also be prohibited from using tobacco products during televised interviews, during autograph signings or any other event where fans (especially young fans – teenagers and children) will be present.
Additionally, MLB and MLBPA will team up with The Partnership at drugfree.org for a national public announcement campaign featuring notable players talking about the dangers of smokeless tobacco.
For those players addicted to smokeless tobacco, the MLBPA will provide a Tobacco Cessation Center with resources to educate them about their health and help them quit the habit. They will also receive screenings for oral cancer as part of their annual physicals.
The Campaign For Tobacco Free Kids has taken another step toward victory with the new MBL contract restrictions that will minimize the chances of young fans seeing one of their heroes using the dangerous, addictive tobacco products.